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Space startup ‘Airbus’ launched a device that is designed to address space debris in Earth’s orbit in early November as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-9 mission.

The specialized device is called a Detumbler and has been designed and launched to prevent defunct satellites from tumbling. According to the company’s official release, this new device is scheduled for in-orbit testing in early 2024, with the testing mission being a collaboration between the space companies Exotrail and EnduroSat. The device’s application will be demonstrated during the mission using a nanosatellite called Exo-0 that was built by EnduroSat.

What is satellite tumbling, and why is that an issue? According to Interesting Engineering, many defunct satellites experience uncontrolled tumbling in their final years due to orbital flight dynamics, following unpredictable paths. Tumbling or rotation in satellites can be caused by many different reasons, the main being the exhaustion of onboard fuel required for “attitude control” that is essential for maintaining orientation in orbit. Other factors include mechanical malfunctions, alterations in mass distribution, and external impacts.

Furthermore, with the Earth’s orbit becoming increasingly crowded, the problem of space debris is expected to escalate significantly in the upcoming years, so a tumbling satellite presents a potential hazard of colliding with another spacecraft or undergoing uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

This is where Airbus’s Detumbler comes in- it weighs about 100 grams, is based on a “magnetic damping” technique and can be attached to a targeted satellite. It is made of a central rotor wheel and magnets that work with the help of Earth’s magnetic field. The company’s release explains: “When the satellite is flying normally the rotor acts like a compass following the magnetic field, but should the spacecraft begin to tumble the rotor movement induces eddy currents acting like a friction torque thus damping the motion.”

This device could prove extremely valuable in upcoming missions, preventing satellite tumbling and facilitating their capture during debris-clearing operations. Nowadays, space debris monitoring and management are absolutely crucial for guaranteeing the long-term viability of space operations and minimizing any harm to operating satellites and space infrastructure.