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Adapting to Change: Navigating New ESA Guidelines for Space Debris Mitigation



Adapting to Change: Navigating New ESA Guidelines for Space Debris Mitigation

In October 2023, The European Space Agency (ESA) introduced a new set of guidelines focused on space debris mitigation which particularly affect the smallsat and CubeSat categories. For many such spacecraft, the most profound point from the 83-page requirements document is that the mission should limit its lifetime to 5 years. This directive poses a unique challenge, as the dynamic nature of the space environment makes precise lifetime estimations difficult, with solar activity being a crucial variable for low Earth orbits.  

Solar activity refers to the Sun’s phenomena, like solar flares and sunspots, which vary over an 11-year cycle. These activities can affect the Earth’s atmosphere, expanding it and increasing drag on satellites, thereby shortening their orbital lifetimes. We are currently entering a declining trend in solar activity which results in a longer lifetime of a satellite. Free tools such as DRAMA and MASTER, developed by ESA, allow us to analyse and understand the expected space environment.

The first Slovak satellite skCUBE, the mission Spacemanic has spun off from, was launched in 2017. It operated during a period of minimal solar activity period and impressively lasted for over 6.4 years! Such a feat would certainly not be compliant with ESA’s new regulations. On the other hand, another mission built by Spacemanic, BDSat-1, was launched into a much more active solar environment. In its first two years, it has already decreased its altitude by 150 km, in contrast to skCUBE, which only lost 10 km. Our most recent satellite, Veronika, is projected to have a lifespan of 2.5 years which is slightly longer than that of BDSat-1.

When considering larger CubeSats, the longevity issue becomes even more pronounced due to their increased mass relative to surface area. For example, the 3U VZLUSat-2 which is projected to have an operational life of close to 7 years, despite being up there during solar maximum.

 This raises an important question: Should satellite deployment strategies adapt to lower altitudes, or is it now imperative for manufacturers to integrate propulsion systems, albeit increasing the price and complexity of their platform? It seems an era where cost-effective space travel is within reach may start to face new challenges. However, the space industry's nature and the growing interest in space exploration could lead to unforeseen developments.

At Spacemanic, we understand the importance of innovation in response to these regulations. The development of our CORVUS platform within the European Space Agency Pioneer programme could not have been timed better. With ESA’s guidance and proactive stance on the Space Debris Mitigation policy, we are steering our products and services toward full compliance. This evolution marks a step towards a future where space missions are not just technologically advanced, but also environmentally conscious and responsible. Our focus is on harnessing and developing technologies that align with these objectives, positioning Spacemanic as a forerunner in shaping a sustainable path for space exploration.

We invite other industry players, potential clients, and collaborators to join us in adapting to these changes. For more information about our platforms, products, and how we can help your missions meet the new ESA regulations, contact us!


Author: Natalia Gogolova