Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) proposes to develop passive and active enhancements to existing heritage electrodynamic tether smallsat deorbit systems. Passive coatings based on flexible materials with negative electron affinity-enhanced TP electron emitters will enable deorbit of smallsats and other payloads at end-of-life at altitudes up to at least 1200 km by increasing the passively generated current through electrodynamic tethers. The active component of PSI’s system, embodied by a robust, self-powered and self-regulated cold cathode electron gun, will further increase deorbit rate and altitude while also giving a host satellite control over deorbit parameters. This active deorbit system is entirely electric and requires no propellant, dramatically reducing their size, weight and power requirements versus traditional active deorbit systems and services.
Both the active and passive deorbit components leverage past work PSI has performed for the US Space Force and for NASA. PSI is also partnering with Tethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI) to adapt the passive and active electrodynamic tether enhancement to their existing, heritage terminator tape (TT) deorbit systems. In Phase I, PSI will demonstrate proof of concept for the new tether enhancement technologies. In Phase II, PSI will apply the new technologies to TUI’s TT system, producing flight-ready prototypes available to NASA for deployment on demonstration missions following the Phase II program.
The innovation is applicable to smallsats, and possibly larger objects such as spent rocket stages having terminal altitudes up to at least 1100-1200 km. The application is controlled, rapid, propellantless deorbit of payloads in order to minimize further pollution of low Earth orbit (LEO) and mitigate the risk of spacecraft collisions. Further development may allow propellantless station keeping in LEO, as well as propellantless maneuver of spacecraft around other planets with natural magnetic fields such as Jupiter and Saturn.
The innovation is applicable to all smallsats, and possibly larger payloads such as spent rocket stages. The application is controlled, rapid, propellantless deorbit of payloads, minimizing further pollution of low Earth orbit and mitigate risk of spacecraft collisions. This innovation will also enable cost-effective compliance with regulations designed to mitigate space pollution.