‘Terminator Tape’ did its job in space-junk test — and it will be back

A technique that could help alleviate the scourge of space debris has just passed an important off-earth test.

In June 2019, SpaceX’s giant Falcon Heavy rocket launched two dozen satellites into orbit, including a £ 154th (70 kilogram) vehicle called the Prox-1, built by a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Shortly thereafter, Prox-1 successfully deployed the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 solar sail.

But Prox-1 wasn’t finished yet. In early September, the satellite made another deployment: it activated Terminator Tape, a notebook-sized module attached to the outside of Prox-1. The module, built by Washington-based Tethers Unlimited, unfolded a 70-meter-long strip of electrically conductive tape to lower Prox-1’s orbit through increased air resistance.

Connected: Space Debris Explained: The Orbital Debris Threat (Infographic)

And the Terminator Tape did its job, said representatives from Tethers Unlimited.

“Three months after launch, our timer unit ordered the terminator tape to be deployed as planned, and we can see from observations by the US Space Surveillance Network that the satellite immediately came out of orbit more than 24 times faster [than before]”Said Rob Hoyt, CEO of Tethers Unlimited, in a statement last week.

“Removing dead satellites quickly in this way will help combat the growing problem of space debris,” added Hoyt. “This successful test shows that this lightweight, inexpensive technology is an effective means for satellite programming to meet orbital debris reduction requirements.”

Space debris poses a significant threat to the exploitation and exploration of the final frontier, many experts have emphasized. This threat will only increase as it becomes easier and cheaper to build satellites and put them into orbit. If there are more spaceships flying around up there, controlled by people with varying degrees of operational experience, the likelihood of a collision increases further. And even a few smashups in space could create a cascade of debris that would render certain orbital regions unusable for the foreseeable future.

People like Hoyt and his team are developing ways to shut down satellites in time when their operational lives are over. Some of these technologies would escort satellites into orbit, as did terminator tape and similar drag-inducing sails. Other groups develop junk-hunting spaceships that would capture their quarries with harpoons or nets.

The terminator tape test is still ongoing. Tethers Unlimited works with Millennium Space Systems, TriSept Corp. and Rocket Lab on a mission called Dragracer that compares the deorbitation of two satellites that are identical in every way: one vehicle will have a terminator tape module and the other will not.

Mike Wall’s book “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate) is out. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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