A spacecraft thinner than a human hair can clean up space junk

Popular Science gets the skinny on a super-thin satellite that cleans up the metal messes we leave in orbit:

This past spring, the NIAC awarded researchers at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California $500,000 to continue development of an unusual-looking spacecraft that’s meant to mop up small pieces of space debris; almost like a space vacuum cleaner. Called Brane Crafts, the tiny ships are about a yard across and thinner than a human hair. Each one would wrap around a chunk of debris and yank it down to into the atmosphere, where it would heat up and eventually be incinerated about 155 miles above the Earth’s surface.

“You can essentially think of it as one giant piece of saran wrap covered with thrusters, and you can curl it however you want,” Derleth says.

“The Brane Craft idea is to take a spacecraft and reduce it to its absolute minimum mass,” says Siegfried Janson, a senior scientist at The Aerospace Corporation. Currently, it can cost around $250,000 to launch a CubeSat, a kind of miniaturized satellite, that is about 11 pounds, Janson says. His goal is to make spacecraft that are so light that they would cost only $5,000 each to launch.

The current design is a membrane-like ship that is three square feet in size and weighs less than a banana. Each spacecraft will be made from flexible plastic sheets 10 microns thick (our hairs tend to be up to 180 microns thick) printed with a fine film of solar cells and electronics. Liquid propellant will be stored in the 15 to 20 micron gap between these sheets.

The solar cells will power a type of engine called an electrospray thruster that uses propellant very sparingly, Janson says. The whole ship will be bendy, too. “Basically it’s got thin muscles integrated into the structure,” he says. These “muscles” are made from a polymer sandwiched between two metal plates that can change shape when an electric current is run through them, causing a voltage difference.

These slender spacecraft are meant to be light enough to travel to space en masse. Janson envisions a batch of 50 or more Brane Crafts “like a stack of pizzas” launched together into orbit.