COLORADO SPRINGS — Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems announced Aug. 23 it successfully demonstrated the use of a deployable tether to de-orbit a satellite after it completes its mission.

The company in November launched an experiment called Dragracer aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. Two identical cubesats were deployed. One had a 70-meter long drag tape made by Tethers Unlimited and the other did not. The satellite with the drag tape burned upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere after eight months. The satellite without tape will naturally de-orbit which is estimated to take at least seven years

Tethers’ tape creates additional surface area that interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere to create drag, which draws satellites back to Earth faster. The tape is deployed when a satellite is ready to de-orbit. 

Patrick Kelly, Dragracer program manager at Millennium Space, said the tape weighs less than 1 kilogram and requires very little power to activate. 

The experiment showed the technology works and could help relieve congestion in low Earth orbit where thousands of satellites will launch over the next decade, he said. “What we’ve proven is a way to safely and deliberately de-orbit retired satellites.” 

Tethers’ device, called Terminator, can be adapted for larger spacecraft, said Kelly. The idea is to add more surface area to create drag. “You can scale that up as needed,” he said. The tape can be deployed remotely from the ground or autonomously by the spacecraft. 

Millennium Space paid for the demonstration with internal research and development funds. Kelly said the technology could be used by any satellite operator, particularly those that are putting put large constellations. Traditionally they will use satellites’ onboard propulsion to maneuver back to the atmosphere at the end of their service life but that can be costly, said Kelly. “We provide an alternative.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...