The crew of The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) should have woken up on Proxima centauri b at the end of their long space nap. Instead, they were rudely awoken mid journey when something went horribly wrong. Damage to the ship left pieces of it sprawling out through empty space. Their only saving grace is that they were far away from anything else. Barring any additional external forces, all of the spaceship shrapnel should drift safely away.
Closer to home, in the real world, space junk in low-Earth orbit is a much more serious problem. There are more than 27,000 pieces of space debris large enough to be tracked and an unknown number of smaller bits. In fact, the latter number is continually growing as large pieces of space trash smash into one another and fracture into orbital bullets, each traveling more than 17,000 miles per hour.
Airbus Detumbler Launched to Control Space Junk in Low-Earth Orbit
To complicate matters, once dead, satellites lose control over their motions and tend to start tumbling end over end. Various programs around the world are right now developing equipment to retrieve and clean up space junk. All of those programs need to be able to safely grab hold of dead satellites and orbital debris before they can do something with it. Having a way to arrest or prevent tumbling could make future cleanup missions considerably easier. That’s where Airbus’ Detumbler comes in.
The device was launched aboard the SpaceX Transporter 9 mission on November 11. Transporter 9 was a rideshare mission carrying more than 100 satellites into low-Earth orbit, including the Detumbler. Launched aboard a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the Detumbler is designed to prevent dead satellites from tumbling out of control after their mission is over.
The Detumbler was developed in 2021 with support from the Tech4SpaceCare initiative under the French Space Agency CNES. The device would be attached to a satellite before the end of its life, potentially even before launch. While the satellite is active, the Detumbler acts like a compass by following the Earth’s electromagnetic field. Once a satellite dies and begins to tumble, an internal rotor wheel and magnets kick into action.
The Detumbler is capable of detecting the tumbling motion of a satellite and working against it. As the satellite drifts, the magnets create counter currents which work like friction to push against any tumbling motion. It can’t move a satellite into a different orbit or prevent it from hitting something else, but it might be able to provide easier packets for orbital cleanup robots. In 2024, the Detumbler will be deployed and tested in orbit, attached to an Exo-0 nanosatellite from EnduroSat, according to Airbus.
In the meantime, catch up on the complete first season of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock.