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Towards zero-debris CubeSats with ESA

In the past few years CubeSats revolutionised space applications in low Earth orbit, levelling the playfield and opening space to commercialisation, especially for smaller and medium companies. While their benefits are undeniable, a significant drawback is their potential to generate additional space debris. As the requirements for orbital lifetime and sustainability become more demanding, new challenges will arise for CubeSats. ESA is looking for innovative ideas to make the versatile satellites more sustainable.

Debris objects - mostly debris - in low Earth orbit (LEO) - view over the equator

ESA's Zero Debris approach seeks to significantly limit the production of debris in Earth and Lunar orbits by 2030 for all future missions, programmes and activities. According to the Agency's 2023 Space Environment report, 48.6% of satellites weighing between 10 and 100 kg do not meet current space debris mitigation standards. These satellites depend exclusively on natural decay to comply with the 25-year rule, which mandates that spacecraft must leave protected orbits within 25 years of the end of their operational life. Also, end-of-life active deorbiting systems for CubeSats have yet to be fully demonstrated.

The call is funded by the Preparation element of ESA’s Basic Activities under the SysNova initiative, which promotes joint studies by academic and industrial institutions across ESA Member States in the exploratory phase of new topics. It uses technology challenges and competition to survey a comparatively large number of alternative solutions to a proposed topic.


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