Dragracer Proves Tether De-Orbiting Capability

Credit: Millennium Space Systems

COLORADO SPRINGS—Boeing-owned Millennium Space Systems says last month’s early re-entry of an experimental spacecraft successfully demonstrated the ability of deployable tape technology to significantly accelerate de-orbiting a satellite after service-life completion.

The satellite, dubbed Alchemy, was one of two identical units launched in November 2020 on a Rocket Lab Electron as part of the Dragracer mission. Conducted with Millennium, space company TriSept and Tethers Unlimited, which manufactures the Terminator Tape system, the flight set out to compare the drag effect on the tape-equipped satellite versus that of its non-tape configured twin, which is called Augury.

Following their arrival in a 310-mi. (500-km) orbit, Alchemy deployed the 230-ft.-long tape and re-entered the atmosphere eight months later on July 19, 2021. The Augury, meanwhile, continues in orbit and is not expected to re-enter until 2028 at the earliest. 

“Thousands of satellites will launch over the next decade, creating serious congestion in low Earth orbit,” said Patrick Kelly, Dragracer program manager at Millennium. “What we’ve proven is a way to safely and deliberately deorbit retired satellites.”

The electrodynamic tether, which consists of long conducting wires, generates drag through passive interaction with ionospheric plasma and the neutral particles in the upper atmosphere. Millennium says the tape deploys from a simple mechanism when the satellite is ready to de-orbit and, because of its light weight, does not impact the spacecraft’s primary mission.

Terminator Tape is also currently deployed on Prox-1, a satellite built by the Georgia Institute of Technology, and on the Naval Postgraduate School’s NPSat-1. Both were launched in June 2019 and, although they remain in orbit, the two satellites are beginning to accelerate towards de-orbiting.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.