Science Questions

Will Cubesats increase the Space Junk problem?

Sun, 15th Aug 2010

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Storm Steve asked:

My question is about space junk and satellite tracking. There is so much junk currently in orbit, that act as projectiles, and the junk can destroy functioning satellites. Won't these tiny CubeSats greatly increase this problem?


Ben -   Earth’s orbit is becoming very crowded, but it’s a great question.  I asked Chris Castelli, who said that CubeSats will only be in low earth orbits, only 90 to 100 kilometres above the ground.  And as there’s still an atmosphere up there, that will exert a drag on the CubeSats, and they will quite naturally drop out of orbit, and harmlessly burn up in the atmosphere.  So, existing satellites should be safe.


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In the Naked Astronomy podcast "The Biggest Questions in the Universe" there is a discussion about small satellites called cubesats. Cubesats are as small as 10x10x10 cm.

The suggestion was made that we should send constellations of tens or even hundreds cubesats into orbit.

My question is about space junk and satellite tracking.  There is so much junk currently in orbit that act as projectiles. The junk can destroy functioning satellites. Modern satellites must be able to evade the junk in order to survive. There are systems in place to track space junk.

Won't these tiny cubesats greatly increase this problem?

Steve Steven Gale , Tue, 27th Jul 2010

The problem is not so much the satellites themselves(which can be tracked and accounted for) but streams small particles caused by the destruction of or collisions between satellites.  Even a small flake of paint at a relative speed greater than a rifle bullet can be very destructive. Soul Surfer, Tue, 27th Jul 2010

I asked this very question to Chris Castelli, but had to lose it in the edit as the interview was too long.  Here's a transcript from the unedited audio:

Chris Castelli:  They're very small and because they're generally put into a very low orbit, they eventually - naturally - de-orbit anyway.  Even though they may be 90-100km above us, there is actually an atmosphere there, and this does put drag on the CubeSats.  Generally, the CubeSats don't have any propulsion systems on board, so they eventually will decay, come back down to Earth and burn up harmlessly in Earth's atmosphere.

It's interesting you should bring up debris, because I think the University of Surrey are proposing to launch something called CubeSail which will deomonstrate a passive way of de-orbiting a satelite using a CubeSat platform as a way of quickly demonstrating the concept and the technology.  It will unfurl a large sail in orbit, and this, when it's positioned in the right way - into the track of the orbital motion - will actually put drag on the satellite and de-orbit it more quickly.  So they're looking at that with a CubeSat type platform. BRValsler, Tue, 27th Jul 2010


After reading the transcript my understanding is that CubeSats are usually put into a very low orbit, where there is little chance of collision with other satellites (that are generally at higher altitudes).

If CubeSats were put into a more "normal" orbit it would seem to be a nuisance to track (and avoid) hundreds of cannon ball sized projectiles. galesteven, Wed, 28th Jul 2010

From what I know, there are CubeSat pico satellite in a 500 km polar orbit, so they will not come on Earth too soon. palau, Sat, 7th Aug 2010

I'd not heard of cubesats... Is this a cubesat?

peppercorn, Tue, 17th Aug 2010

The latest Kentucky Space CubeSat will test deploying a tether behind the CubeSat, increasing drag and meeting the NASA requirement of objects to be removed from orbit within 25 years of their launch.

Chris cwinfield, Thu, 30th Sep 2010

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