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Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

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‘Terminator Tape’ will fight orbital debris

Terminator Tape
One version of the Terminator Tape system is designed to be integrated onto a 4-inch-wide CubeSat. A dime is included in the picture for a size comparison. (Tethers Unlimited Photo)

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited will have its technology for deorbiting space debris put to its most ambitious test next year, during a satellite mission that will be conducted in league with TriSept Corp.Millennium Space Systems and Rocket Lab.

The technology, known as Terminator Tape, involves placing a module on a small satellite that can unwind a stretch of electrically conductive tape when it’s time to dispose of the satellite.

“This tape will significantly increase the aerodynamic cross-section of the satellite, enhancing the drag it experiences due to neutral particles,” Tethers Unlimited says in an online explainer. “In addition, the motion of this tape across the Earth’s magnetic field will induce a voltage along the tape. This voltage will drive a current to flow up the tape, with electrons collected from the conducting ionospheric plasma at the top of the tape and ions collected at the bottom. This current will induce a ‘passive electrodynamic’ drag force on the tape.”

The increased drag should dramatically shorten the timetable for dragging a satellite down to its fiery atmospheric re-entry.

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A way-out plan to turn space junk into treasure

Orbital debris
A computer-generated image represents zones of space debris. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

What can be done with the thousands of dead satellites orbiting Earth? Some commercial ventures are hatching plans to get rid of them, but one expert has laid out a scheme for turning them into building materials … for the moon.

And the Blue Moon lunar lander being developed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture could play a part in the scheme. “The Blue Moon fits into my plan perfectly,” Keith Volkert, CEO of California-based Satellite Consulting Inc., said last week at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas.

The fact that Volkert presented his satellite salvaging plan at re:MARS doesn’t suggest that Bezos has endorsed the idea. But it does suggest Volkert has put enough thought into his seemingly crazy idea to win a share of the Vegas spotlight.

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VP Mike Pence addresses the space traffic jam

Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (Space Symposium via YouTube)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Trump administration is getting set to sign off on a new set of procedures for managing space traffic and minimizing space junk, Vice President Mike Pence said today.

During an opening address to the 34th Space Symposium here, Pence talked up efforts to boost human spaceflight, set a course for the moon and Mars, and trim back regulations on the space industry.

“Under President Donald Trump, America is leading in space once again,” said Pence, who chairs the White House’s National Space Council.

Pence called on the Senate to confirm Trump’s choice for NASA administrator, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., whose nomination has been stalled for months. He also announced that Jim Ellis, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, would head the space council’s Users Advisory Group.

But it was Pence’s comments on a new space traffic management system that drew the most attention.

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Tiangong-1 space lab burns up over the Pacific

Tiangong-1 destruction
An artist’s conception shows the fiery breakup of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab. (AGI Illustration)

China’s Tiangong-1 space lab is no more.

The 8.5-ton spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere at about 5:15 p.m. PT today (00:15 GMT on April 2) over the Pacific Ocean, and any pieces that survived the fiery plunge should have fallen into the central area of the South Pacific, Chinese space officials said.

The U.S. military’s Joint Force Space Component Command issued a similar report, setting the time of re-entry at about 5:16 p.m.

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Chinese space lab heads for a fall this weekend

Tiangong-1 space lab
An artist’s conception shows China’s Tiangong-1 space lab flying over the Gulf of Mexico. (The Aerospace Corp. via YouTube)china

After months of tracking China’s uncontrollable Tiangong-1 space lab, satellite watchers have narrowed down the time frame for its final, fiery plunge through the atmosphere — and it’s this weekend.

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Chinese space junk sparks meteor reports

Image: Fireball
YouTube user Ian Norman captured this view of the fireball in the skies over Alabama Hills, Calif. (Credit: Ian Norman via YouTube)

A bright streak in the sky generated hundreds of meteor sighting reports from Southern California to British Columbia, but it didn’t take long for the flash to be traced to the re-entry of a Chinese rocket stage.

The fireball was seen across a wide swath of the western United States between 9:30 and 10 p.m. PT Wednesday. More than a dozen Washington state observers on the east side of the Cascades filed reports with the American Meteor Society. But Western Washington? Not so much, probably because of sighting angles as well as sky conditions.

The fireball’s trajectory matched up with the track of a second-stage booster from a Chinese Long March 7 rocket that was launched on Monday. This launch sent up several experiments and satellites, but it also served as an initial flight test for a vehicle that’s expected to send payloads to China’s present and future space stations.

The U.S. military’s Joint Space Operations Center confirmed that the rocket stage fell through the atmosphere and broke up as it passed over California and Nevada, heading eastward.

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Mystery object’s breakup caught on video

Scientists flying on an instrument-laden jet captured great video views of a mysterious space object known as WT1190F as it streaked through the air and burned up over the Indian Ocean today.

The pictures were put on the Web just hours after the object, which is thought to have been debris from a rocket or spacecraft, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 06:18 GMT Friday (10:18 p.m. PT Thursday).

WT1190F was discovered by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey just last month, but an analysis of archived telescope data revealed that the object had been tracing a highly elliptical Earth orbit for years, ranging up to twice as far away as the moon.

The analysis also showed that the object was relatively lightweight, and measured about 6 feet (2 meters) in length. That’s what led experts on orbital debris to conclude that it was a piece of space junk.

There are thousands of bits of space junk orbiting our planet, but what’s remarkable about WT1190F is that its atmospheric re-entry could be calculated so precisely in advance. The pictures and data captured from a Gulfstream jet flying out of Abu Dhabi provides the evidence that scientists nailed it.

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Mystery space object heads for Indian Ocean

Image: Hayabusa re-entry
An image taken from a NASA DC-8 airplane shows the re-entry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010. WT1190F’s re-entry will be less spectacular because it’s due to occur at midday local time. (Credit: Jesse Carpenter / Greg Merkes / NASA Ames file)

Is it a spent Apollo rocket stage from the ’60s? A scary space rock? Whatever it is, the mysterious object known as WT1190F is zooming in from deep space – and it’s expected to go out in a blaze of glory tonight.

The big question is whether anyone will see that blaze. Experts on orbital debris estimate that WT1190F is a low-density, possibly hollow object measuring just 6 feet (2 meters long). Astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey first observed the object in October. When they looked back at archived telescope data, they figured out that it’s been tracing a highly eccentric orbit around Earth that swings out beyond the moon’s orbit.

The European Space Agency says the best match for an object with those characteristics is a “discarded rocket body.” Other observers suggest it could be debris cast off by a moon mission, perhaps going back to the Apollo era. No wonder the thing has been nicknamed “WTF.”

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