Space Flight Laboratory successfully demonstrates drag sail technology

CanX-7 Spacecraft (10 x 10 x 34 cm – roughly the size of a two litre milk carton) with Deployed Drag Sail during testing at SFL Credit: SFL.

Toronto based Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) announced today it had successfully demonstrated its drag sail technology when the CanX-7 satellite deorbited last month.

The CanX-7 (Canadian Advanced Nanospace eXperiment-7) was a three-kilogram, 10x10x34cm satellite that was launched on September 26, 2016. The satellite was funded by the Defence Research and Development Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, COM DEV Ltd. (now Honeywell), and the Canadian Space Agency.

According to SFL “the satellite successfully completed a seven-month aircraft tracking campaign before deploying its drag sails in May 2017 to demonstrate drag-sail based deorbiting.” SFL said it took five years for the drag sail to deorbit the satellite and without it the satellite wouldn’t have burned up in the atmosphere for roughly another 178 year.

SFL also stated that the satellite “deployed the four drag sails – each about one square meter in area – on May 4, 2017, with the intent of decreasing the ballistic coefficient of the nanosatellite and using atmospheric drag to accelerate orbital decay. Mission participants observed an almost immediate change in altitude decay rate and continued tracking the orbital decay rate until CanX-7 re-entered the atmosphere on April 21, 2022.”

SFL Director Dr. Robert E. Zee said “The SFL drag sail technology developed for nano- and microsatellites is among the only commercially viable deorbiting devices available today, aside from propulsion. The drag sails performed better than designed, deorbiting CanX-7 in far less time than the maximum 25-year target recommended by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).”

“Orbital debris is a big concern for the space industry, and the passive de-orbit technology demonstrated on CanX-7 is an advantageous solution for nano- and microsatellites,” said SFL’s CanX-7 Mission Manager, Brad Cotten. “The mission verified that SFL’s lightweight drag sail technology is a more cost-effective and less complex method for deorbiting smaller satellites than traditional propulsion techniques.”

“According to Dr. Lauchie Scott, defence scientist with Defence Research and Development Canada, the CanX-7 drag sail deployment campaign provided a very rare opportunity to observe a satellite drastically change shape and size while being tracked by ground-based telescopes. This view showed the nanosatellite’s brightness signature during the sail deployment and how its rotational motion evolved while the longer-term space sustainability deorbit experiment continued.”

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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