“Shoestring” picosat experiment to demonstrate unique space tether technologies

The Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) “Multi-Application Survivable Tether” (MAST) experiment will be launched April 17th to study the dynamics of tethered spacecraft formations and survivability of a new multistrand tether technology in low Earth orbit (LEO).

The MAST experiment consists of three GPS receiver-equipped picosatellites stacked for launch into a volume about the size of a loaf of bread. Once in orbit, two of the satellites will separate and deploy a 1,000 meter long version of the company’s patented Hoytether(TM) structure. A third picosatellite, dubbed “Gadget,” will then crawl slowly along the tether’s length, recording and transmitting images of the tether to enable detection of any damage to the tether. The MAST picosatellites were developed by TUI in collaboration with Stanford University.

(See graphic link http://gallery.ejwassoc.com/uploads/MAST_experiment.jpg)

TUI hopes to prove the survivability of their newest generation of multi- strand tether technology in orbit where it will be exposed to impacts by micrometeoroids, orbital debris, and erosion by atomic oxygen and UV light. Previous tether experiments have had inconsistent lifetimes in the space environment, with the Naval Research Laboratory’s TiPS tether lasting ten years while NASA’s SEDS-2 tether lasted just five days. Over a period of several months, data from the MAST experiment will prove whether TUI’s Hoytether design can enable tethers to operate reliably for long durations in space.

However, “our first measure of MAST experiment success will be the deployment of the 1 kilometer long tether and the three picosatellites,” according to Dr. Robert Hoyt, TUI’s CEO & Chairman. TUI has developed the mission within a budget of less than one million dollars, a tiny sum compared to most space missions.

The promise of tethers in space revolves around their potential to provide lower cost alternatives for propulsion and power. Momentum-Exchange tethers can be used to provide space propulsion without consuming propellant by slinging a payload from low earth orbit to a higher orbit. Conductive space tethers can generate electrical power or produce thrust forces through interactions with the Earth’s magnetic field to change orbits, or de-orbiting a spacecraft after its mission to minimize space junk. Tether systems can also enable groups of satellites to fly in formation for applications like long- baseline interferometry for detection of planets around other suns, or the creation of large synthetic aperture radar systems in space for Earth observation. In addition, high-voltage electrostatic tethers may enable remediation of the Earth’s radiation belts. The data to be collected by the picosatellite crawling up and down the TUI tether will result in key survivability projections for these future tether projects.

Recent NPR interview (16 April 07): Space Tethers: Slinging Objects in Orbit? (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9574513)

For more information contact:

Dr. Robert Hoyt, CEO & Chairman
Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
11711 North Creek Parkway South, Suite D-113
Bothell, WA 98011-8804
Voice: (425) 486-0100 x 111
Fax: (425) 482-9670