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Space Sustainability

We are far more reliant on space than most people realise. We learn about our world through the eyes of the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, we seek to explore and travel to distant planets, and, closer to Earth, we’ve come to be dependent on satellites which observe Earth, predict our weather, power our navigation tools, and help us communicate. Space directly benefits humanity; space technology can support each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals created by the United Nations, and over half of the essential climate variables, necessary to track climate change, can only be measured from space. 

Space Debris in Low Earth Orbit.png

Sustainability is a term which will dominate this next generation of the space industry, as well as a primary criterion by which the public will judge our work's impact on the planet. There is a need for many parallel de-orbit solutions to tackle this multi-faceted challenge, meet the exponential increase in spacecraft activities, and encourage operators to go above and beyond when it comes to end-of-life operations. Active debris removal missions are an essential part of the equation, but with the rate at which satellite activity is increasing, it is equally as important to ensure new satellites are equipped with the means to remove themselves from orbit post-mission. One of these solutions is drag sails; simple, low-cost devices allowing satellites to de-orbit more quickly and thus reduce the risk of subsequent collisions in space. Drag sails have been researched and developed for many years, but often stop at a technology-demonstration level.


"Imagine driving down a road which has more broken cars, bikes and vans lining the street than functioning vehicles. This is the scene our satellites face in Earth orbit."

European Space Agency

Annual Space Environment Report 2022

Developing drag sails since 2015, Cranfield University and now Frontier Space Technologies are continuing to advance these sails, commercialising the devices to offer a market-ready de-orbit solution to small satellite operators. They are an effective method of reducing future debris without curbing the rejuvenated enthusiasm in the sector. Frontier's own COO, Dr. Zaria Serfontein, chose the drag sails as her doctoral thesis topic, and through microgravity testing, demonstrated the reliability, adaptability, and scalability of the sails. She advanced the technology readiness level of drag sails and advocated for the issue of sustainable space development at all levels of society, from governments to academia to the young engineers of the future. Her work included confirming the feasibility of a more scalable and adaptable drag sail design, addressing the knowledge gaps in microgravity testing, and accurately modelling drag-sail-assisted de-orbits, through a combination of literature, in-flight testing results and in-orbit data analysis.

Parabolic Flights
2021-04-28 17_25_32-Time to Act - YouTube

While the the trend towards a need for de-orbit devices is clear, the drivers of demand are not yet sufficiently matured. Education is required at all levels, from linking space activities to the daily lives of everyone on Earth and highlighting the dangers of space debris, to having a pragmatic conversation around what space actors are willing to do, rather than what "should" be done. Regulations, guidelines, and best practices, although slow to implement and difficult to enforce, are changing for the better and the pressure to preserve the space environment for future activity is mounting. The low Earth environment is in an increasingly fragile state and our actions will determine our ability to continue benefiting from this resource. Drag sails are a deceptively simple solution, hopefully one of many, which will allow us to address this incredibly complex challenge. 

If you're interested in collaborating on sustainable projects, get in touch!

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