Deployable Drag Device for Launch Vehicle Upper Stage De-orbit

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Long, Alexandra C.
Spencer, David A.
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Orbital debris is a growing problem in low Earth orbit; it has crossed a threshold of critical density where the number of debris objects will grow exponentially unless mitigated. Spent launch vehicle upper stages represent a problematic category of orbital debris in highly utilized orbits. They can stay in orbit for well over 100 years if left to deorbit naturally, and they represent a significant fraction of large space debris in low-Earth orbit. It is estimated that removing a few large objects per year will mitigate the exponential growth of debris. To address the debris problem, a trade study was conducted to determine a deployable drag device to accelerate the orbit degradation of upper stages. Following the operation of the upper stage, the drag device will be deployed to decrease the orbit lifetime of the system. The design is targeted toward upper stages launched into orbital altitudes ranging from 650-850 km. Three categories of deployable drag devices are being investigated: drag sails, inflatable aerodynamic decelerators, and electrodynamic tethers. These are compared to the option of using residual propellant in the upper stage to perform a burn to initiate a deorbit trajectory. The device will be mounted to the upper stage using a standardized secondary payload launch interface, such as a CubeSat deployer device or the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA). The trade study compared the drag device configurations based on cost, risk, and deorbit time. A maximum deorbit period of 25 years is a performance design requirement. The propulsive option was shown to be the lowest cost option, however the drag device is more mass efficient and has less of an impact to the payload capability of the launch vehicle. An aerostable drag sail design is proposed as a baseline design for the device.
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