Airbus introduces “Detumbler” to Tackle Urgent Crisis

The new Airbus' "Detumbler" device promises to critically aid the removal of space debris, addressing the need for detumbling prior collection

On November 11, Airbus announced the development of “Detumbler”. This compact and lightweight device is set to play a crucial role in favoring the smooth removal of dead satellites. The instrument will ensure the stability of orbiting spacecraft at the end of their operational life, preventing them from tumbling uncontrollably due to the long-term effect of orbital perturbations. This, in turn, would drastically reduce the complexity of a potential subsequent active debris removal (ADR) mission.

Developed by Airbus in collaboration with the French space agency (CNES), the Detumbler is a magnetic damping device designed to be attached to satellites. It consists of a central rotor wheel and magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. During regular satellite flight, the rotor behaves like a compass, aligning with the magnetic field. However, if the satellite experiences tumbling, the rotor’s movement induces eddy currents, creating an opposing torque to mitigate and stabilize the motion.

CAD view of the "Detumbler" reference design. Credits: Airbus
CAD view of the “Detumbler” reference design. Credits: Airbus

The “Detumbler” is planned to perform an in-orbit demonstration by early 2024 on board the Exotrail’s SpaceVan mission which will include the Exo-0 nanosatellite manufactured by EnduroSat.


Impact on the Debris Industry

A successful demonstration will pave the way for the device to be integrated into future satellites, keeping them stable even in case of unexpected malfunctions. The resulting slower rotations will enhance the ease of handling debris during future removal missions.

Various approaches for the collection of debris have been proposed over the years, ranging from harpoons to space nets. In spite of this, most of the companies currently operating in the debris removal industry seem to converge to procedures involving closer approaches.

Docking using a Magnetic System

Astroscale, a Japanese on-orbit servicing company, is actively developing a debris removal service under its ELSA-M program (End-Of-Life Services by Astroscale). Building on the technological success of the ELSA-d demonstration mission launched in 2021, the servicer spacecraft is poised to advance on-orbit servicing capabilities for effective debris removal by exploiting a magnetic docking system.

ELSA-d debris docking demonstration mission
ELSA-d “Servicer” spacecraft approaches the “Client”. Credits: Astroscale

ELSA-d comprised two spacecraft: an 184kg “Servicer” and a 16kg “Client,” launched together. The “Servicer,” equipped with proximity rendezvous equipment and a magnetic docking system, demonstrated its capabilities through repeated dockings with the “Client.” These technical demos included target search, inspection, rendezvous, and docking exercises, covering scenarios involving both non-tumbling and tumbling debris.


Capture using Robotic Arms

The European Space Agency is also investigating new methods for active debris removal. In December 2019, ClearSpace SA, a Swiss startup, secured the contract for the Active Debris Removal/In-Orbit Servicing (ADRIOS) project through a tender published by the agency. The European Space Agency granted €120 million to the firm, enabling the development of the first mission designed to capture an object not originally intended for collection.

Scheduled to be launched in 2025, the mission aims to eliminate a 112kg VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) roughly the size of a washing machine, left in orbit at 800km by a Vega flight in 2013. The “chaser” spacecraft, equipped with four robotic arms, will capture the uncooperative debris and guide it into Earth’s atmosphere for a controlled burn-up, ensuring the complete disintegration of both satellites.

Impression of ClearSpace-1 capturing the VESPA. Credits: ClearSpace SA

The significance of the mission, known as ClearSpace-1, was also commemorated by TIME magazine, by nominating it as one of the best inventions of 2023. Addressing the critical issue of increasingly congested orbits not only safeguards our space environment but also opens up a realm of untapped economic opportunities. Embracing this challenge is not just a responsibility, it is a strategic move towards a cleaner and more prosperous future.

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Daniele Agamennone

Daniele Agamennone

Space Engineering student, passionate about astronomy from an early age. My favorite hobbies? Mountain biking and photography.

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