Aerospace Corp’s senior nanotechnology scientist Dr. Siegfried Janson has designed a nearly two-dimensional spacecraft that could be used to removed dead satellites and other space debris from orbit. The Brane Craft proposal was one of 13 designs chosen by NASA last year to receive a $100,000 Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant. This week, Janson’s project was chosen to for another $500,000 in phase II funding to fund another two years of research and development, and figure out how to build a prototype of the spacecraft.

The novel spacecraft design includes two thin, flexible 1-meter square Kapton sheets, and liquid propellant which is stored within the 10-micron wide gap between the sheets via capillary action. The structure is thinner than a strand of human hair. It’s fitted with solar panels and electrospray ion thrusters, redesigned as thin film structures, to help it maneuver in orbit, making it fuel efficient and easy to maneuver in space. The craft will weigh less than 50 grams.

“The Brane Craft concept is based on the one-dimensional compression of a complete spacecraft and upper stage into an essentially two-dimensional object in order to maximize power-to-weight and aperture-to-weight ratios,” said Janson. Aerospace Corp calls it a “large piece of high-tech plastic.”

The Brane Craft takes the Icarus approach to removing space debris: the sheet uses electroactive polymers to wrap itself around the piece of trash. A 1-square meter section can grab an object that weighs up to 2 kilogram. Larger pieces of debris require a larger Brane Craft. Once the debris is secured in the wrapping, the Brane Craft pulls itself and its piece of space junk into the atmosphere, where both are burned up.

Space debris is becoming a dangerous and expensive problem for NASA and the other agencies and corporations that operate in space. Amid the thousands of satellites that orbit Earth, tens of millions of pieces of space trash — from dead satellites to slippery heat shields to bits and pieces of spacecraft that have broken up in space — are also caught circling around the Earth, and can cause severe damage to satellites and other spacecraft.

GEO Polar image generated from a vantage point above the north pole, showing the concentrations of objects in LEO and in the geosynchronous region. Image source: NASA

The unique ultra-light designs helps to address a number of obstacles in space debris removal. The sea of space trash orbiting Earth is comprised of millions of pieces of debris at different altitudes and orbit inclinations, which means using a single space garbage truck isn’t feasible. Janson’s proposal would involve launching multiple small, light weight and cost-efficient spacecraft to tackle the space junk in fleets, which Janson is calling Distributed Orbital Garbage Sweepers (DOGS). He claims the Brane Craft design could deliver over two orders of magnitude worth of reductions in launch costs.

Researchers from Japan and England are also busy designs that can act as garbage trucks in space, picking up trash and disposing of it in the giant incinerator of our atmosphere. Earlier this year, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) tested out its giant mesh tether idea to grabbing debris, but the test was not successful. The UK’s Surrey Space Centre is also working on a number of designs for capturing and removing space debris.

The Brane Craft’s low mass, ultra-high power-to-weight ratio and design could enable it to travel long distances in space, there are other potential applications for the craft. It could be used to land on near-Earth Asteroids, for example, or even travel to Mars or Venus and return.

Learn all the gritty details in this presentation about Brane Craft made at the NIAC symposium in 2016.

Kendra R Chamberlain
Co-founder and Editor in Chief of The Downlink, covering New Space business and technology developments; journalist at Technigraph Magazine, covering renewable energy technology & smart infrastructure; analyst at Rethink Research.

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