Aerospace Corporation is developing Brane Craft, ultra-thin spacecraft that can help remove space debris.
Many countries have been launching probes, spacecraft, and even entire space stations into orbit around the Earth for decades. However negligible effort has been made to get the objects back to earth. This has now become a major problem because space junk piles up in orbit, posing a danger to future missions. Various solutions to the problem have been suggested, but The Aerospace Corporation says its Brane Craft will be able to deal with space debris efficiently. It’s an ultra-thin flexible sheet that envelopes debris and drags it back into the atmosphere. There are about 5,00,000 pieces of debris circling Earth. 28,000 km per hour is the speed of such debris. Even a minute object impacts with enough energy to damage the surface of satellite or space craft.
The Brane Craft was originally funded by NASA in 2016 as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. This allowed The Aerospace Corporation to pursue the design theory behind the craft, and now it’s time to move forward. The Brane Craft has received phase 2 funding under the NIAC program, which enables The Aerospace Corporation to begin building and testing the spacecraft’s systems in a laboratory setting.
The Brane Craft is essentially a 2-dimensional design, with a total thickness of just 10 micrometers (half teh thickness of human hair). With a total surface area of about a square yard, it would make a tempting target for tiny bits of space debris or micrometeorite. Something as small as 5 micrometers could blast through the main structural sheet if it were struck, so The Aerospace Corporation is working to make it as durable as possible.
Redundancy is key to the Brane Craft. The solar cells are spread across the surface and designed to work independently if one of them is damaged or destroyed. Likewise, the craft has multiple microprocessors and electronics packages spread across the surface. If one of those is damaged, the others can pick up the slack. Even the propellant, which is stored in a thin layer between the two outer sheets, is split up into multiple segmented tanks that can survive an impact. This tiny bit of propellant will be used by the Brane Craft to rendezvous with a piece of space junk, wrap the flexible frame around it, then slowly deorbit itself along with the junk. The limited fuel means the Brane Craft would be limited to capturing objects with a mass of 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) or less.