Tiny Cubesats Adding to Orbital Debris Problem

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The launch of increasing numbers of palm-sized cubesats from around the world is a worry to orbital debris experts.

“The cubesat community has a vested interest in ensuring the safe and enduring use of and access to space,” said Daniel Oltrogge, a senior research astrodynamicist with Analytical Graphics’ Center for Space Standards and Innovation in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Oltrogge spoke at the 25th annual conference on small satellites, held August 8-11 at Utah State University, Logan, Utah. He advised the cubesat community to avoid the perception that it advocates carelessly deployed swarms of tiny satellites or other phased-array cubesat constellations by not first carefully planning such missions to avoid the creation of lasting space debris.

As secondary payloads, cubesats are typically deployed into roughly the same orbit as a primary payload. Cubesats usually do not have built-in hardware for deorbiting purposes — a problem from a debris mitigation standpoint, Oltrogge reported.

In plotting out the whereabouts of nearly 50 cubesats launched since 2003, Oltrogge found that a majority of the tiny spacecraft do not comply with the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee guideline of a 25-year post-mission lifetime in orbit.

“We’re not using best practices,” Oltrogge said. “We need to adhere to the 25-year standard. It reflects poorly on cubesats if we don’t, and it’s something that we need to be concerned about.”