NASA is preparing to test an intriguing device in Earth orbit. Early next year, they will attempt to de-orbit a small satellite using a parachute, called an “Exo-Brake”.
The device was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Japan’s Kounotori 6 cargo vehicle, which arrived on Tuesday, December 13 having launched on Friday, December 9. The mission is called TechEdSat-5 (Technology Education) and was designed by engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
The spacecraft consists of three small CubeSats strapped together, essentially three small cubes. Two of these carry a cross-shaped parachute (the third packs the instruments and whatnot), which will deploy when the spacecraft is released from the ISS early next year.
This parachute, made of Mylar, is designed to slow down the satellite in orbit, ensuring it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. If successful, it could replace existing (and complicated) rocket-based systems used by satellites to de-orbit.
“The Exo-Brake’s current design uses a hybrid system of mechanical struts and flexible cord with a control system that ‘warps’ the Exo-Brake – much like how the Wright brothers used warping to control the flight behavior of their first wing design,” said Marcus Murbach, principal investigator and inventor of the Exo-Brake device, in a statement.
It’s not the first demonstration of this technology; that came back in 2013, when TechEdSat-3p was deployed from the ISS. But this time around, the engineers will be able to control the spacecraft more accurately.
In the future, this technology could enable payload return missions – such as bringing samples back from other bodies – to be landed more easily on the ground. NASA also said the technology could help missions land on Mars, or other bodies in the Solar System.
Engineers with the TechEdSat- payload prior to launch. NASA Ames/Dominic Hart