Comparison of technologies for deorbiting spacecraft from low-earth-orbit at end of mission

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An analytical comparison of four technologies for deorbiting spacecraft from Low-Earth-Orbit at end of mission is presented. Basic formulas based on simple physical models of key figures of merit for each device are found. Active devices - rockets and electrical thrusters - and passive technologies - drag augmentation devices and electrodynamic tethers - are considered. A basic figure of merit is the deorbit device-to-spacecraft mass ratio, which is, in general, a function of environmental variables, technology development parameters and deorbit time. For typical state-of-the-art values, equal deorbit time, middle inclination and initial altitude of 850 km, the analysis indicates that tethers are about one and two orders of magnitude lighter than active technologies and drag augmentation devices, respectively; a tether needs a few percent mass-ratio for a deorbit time of a couple of weeks. For high inclination, the performance drop of the tether system is moderate: mass ratio and deorbit time increase by factors of 2 and 4, respectively. Besides collision risk with other spacecraft and system mass considerations, such as main driving factors for deorbit space technologies, the analysis addresses other important constraints, like deorbit time, system scalability, manoeuver capability, reliability, simplicity, attitude control requirement, and re-entry and multi-mission capability (deorbit and re-boost) issues. The requirements and constraints are used to make a critical assessment of the four technologies as functions of spacecraft mass and initial orbit (altitude and inclination). Emphasis is placed on electrodynamic tethers, including the latest advances attained in the FP7/Space project BETs. The superiority of tape tethers as compared to round and multi-line tethers in terms of deorbit mission performance is highlighted, as well as the importance of an optimal geometry selection, i.e. tape length, width, and thickness, as function of spacecraft mass and initial orbit. Tether system configuration, deployment and dynamical issues, including a simple passive way to mitigate the well-known dynamical instability of electrodynamic tethers, are also discussed.
Proceeding of: The Fifth International Conference on Tethers in Space, May 24-26, 2017, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Deorbiting spacecraft, Electric propulsion thrusters, Electrodynamic tethers
Bibliographic citation
Acta Astronautica, (2017), v.138, pp. 536-542.