Estonian-built satellite to help combat space debris problem

To date, all satellites that have been sent into the Earth's orbit have remained there following the completion of their tasks, turning into space debris. Scheduled to launch this fall, the Estonian-developed cubesat ESTCube-2 will be testing out a new technology that could help remove satellites from orbit at the end of their respective missions.

For the past decade, the ESTCube-2 was under construction at the Tartu Observatory in Tõravere. Over the weekend, the team behind the satellite packed up the cubesat, a miniature satellite consisting of three 10x10x10 centimeter units, and drove it to the Czech Republic, where it will undergo final testing before being prepared for launch this fall.

Should everything be working as planned, the ESTCube-2 is scheduled to hitch a ride into orbit this September.

To date, all satellites that have been sent into the Earth's orbit have remained there following the completion of their tasks, contributing to literal junk continuing to orbit the planet known as space debris. According to ESTCube social media specialist Sirli Sarapuu, this collection of space debris includes tens of thousands of satellites — as launching satellites into orbit becomes increasingly cheaper.

"The ESTCube team has previously launched ESTCube-1 into orbit as well," Sarapuu noted. "Unfortunately, ESTCube-1, for example, has since become space debris as well, as it is shut down, so to speak."

While in orbit, the ESTCube-2 is slated to fulfill several tasks, the most crucial of which is to test whether it's possible to remove a satellite from orbit so as not to generate additional space junk.

"You cannot control space waste," the team member explained. "There are quite a lot of little pieces; even just a little piece the size of your fingertip can destroy other satellites by flying into them. That can cause quite a significant amount of damage."

Previously, it hasn't been possible to remove satellites from orbit. The ESTCube-2, however, will be testing out a new technology — a novel spacecraft propulsion technology known as the electric plasma brake.

Finer than a human hair at 50 micrometers thick, the plasma brake is a thin, high-voltage charged tether attached to the satellite.

"You're riding in a car and you stick your hand out the window," Sarapuu said, describing how the plasma brake works. "Now if your arm were 30 meters long, at some point it'll slow the car down. And now when that satellite's speed is reduced, it will start dropping in its orbit and will eventually burn up in the atmosphere."

She explained that the Czech Republic won't be the Estonian cubesat's last stop on Earth; rather, it will be undergoing preparations there for its trip aboard a launch vehicle.

"This will also mark the last time that anyone will see this particular satellite in person," Sarapuu noted. "From there, all the prepared units will be flown to Kourou [French Guiana], in South America, where it will be placed in the nose cone of the rocket to await its launch."

Under the Estonian Student Satellite Foundation (ETS), more than 500 university students contributed to the building of ESTCube-2 as well. The program's second satellite is slated to orbit the Earth for a total of two years.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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