Creating a Sustainable Space Environment Using Satellite Sails

Rebecca Maxwell


Sustainable living is becoming a popular trend around the world as more and more people integrate these kinds of practices into their daily lives. Sustainability refers to efforts to reduce individual and societal impacts upon the Earth and its environment like recycling and decreasing energy use.

But what about outer space? Are there measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of humans on the space environment?

Can anything be done about the hundreds of inoperative satellites still orbiting the Earth or the tons of space debris from launching spacecraft?  In GIS, imagery and remotely sensed data obtained by satellites has been crucial.

Using gossamer sails to reduce space junk

Scientists within the European Space Agency are taking the first steps towards creating a sustainable space environment by developing and testing innovate satellite technology.

This technology comes in the form of a gossamer sail produced by the University of Surrey’s Space Center. Officially called the Gossamer Deorbit Sail, this ultra-lightweight device is attached to satellites before launch.

Gossamer deorbit sail.   Source: University of Surrey
Gossamer deorbit sail. Source: University of Surrey

When the satellite has been retired and is no longer is use, the sail is opened with the hope that the satellite will be pulled into the Earth’s high atmosphere to burn up within a few months or years.

Related: Spacecraft cemetery

Getting a satellite ready for retirement

One advantage of this new sail is its compactness and extremely low weight. The apparatus only weighs 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and is the size of 15x15x15 centimeters (6x6x10 inches) at launch.

Once a satellite is ready for retirement, the sail can expand out to a size of 5×5 meters (16×16 feet), enough to drag down a satellite that weighs up to 700 kilograms (1500 pounds).

However, this sail is only designed to pull down satellites in low orbits around the Earth, such as those used to provide low-speed data communications satellite phones. There is the potential for satellites higher up in orbit to be deorbited with some kind of solar radiation sail along with an altitude control system.

The development of the satellite sail is part of the European Space Agency’s plan to free up more orbits within twenty-five years. This plan was committed to with the adoption of the European Code of Conduct for Space Debris Mitigation in 2008. The ESA hopes to see the satellite sail tested by the end of 2014 using a demonstration satellite.

The initial testing period to evaluate solar sailing propulsion will last for two to three weeks. The sail will then be rotated to allow scientists to test how effective it is in increasing atmosphere drag to deorbit the satellite.

Ultimately, the goal is the creating a more sustainable environment in outer space as well as reducing the risk of catastrophic satellite collisions. The sail could even be used to deorbit space debris from launching payloads.

Even though humans have been leaving dormant satellites and debris in space for decades, promising efforts are now being made to preserve this delicate environment for future exploration.


“Sailing Satellites into Safe Retirement / Telecommunications & Integrated Applications / Our Activities / ESA.” European Space Agency, 20 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2013. <>.

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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on

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