A $10k satellite built by students can help clean space junk

SBUDNIC was a small cube satellite, about the size of a bread loaf, that was launched on a SpaceX rocket in May 2022.
Rizwan Choudhury
SBUDNIC satellite.

Space junk is a serious issue that threatens the safety and sustainability of orbital activities. To address this problem, a team of students from Brown University designed and built a low-cost cube satellite that successfully deorbited itself after completing its mission. The satellite, named SBUDNIC, used a simple plastic drag sail to increase its atmospheric drag and hasten its reentry.

As per the press release, the small cube satellite has burned up high above Turkey after 445 days in orbit. Its reentry into Earth's atmosphere on Tuesday, Aug. 8, marked the successful conclusion of a low-cost experiment aimed at reducing space debris, five years ahead of schedule.

SBUDNIC: A solution with a shoestring budget

It was one of the smallest and cheapest satellites ever sent to space, costing only about $10,000 and measuring 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. Built using readily available materials like 48 Energizer AA batteries, SBUDNIC's journey started on Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket last May as part of the Transporter 5 ridesharing mission. Brown alumnus Marco Cross, faculty member Rick Fleeter, and an academically diverse team of undergraduates worked diligently to address the growing problem of space junk.

A key feature of SBUDNIC is a plastic drag sail made from Kapton polyimide. Unfurling like an umbrella at about 520 kilometers, it allowed the satellite to descend to Earth faster than anticipated.

A $10k satellite built by students can help clean space junk
The Kapton polyimide drag sail, attached to the SBUDNIC satellite, helped push the satellite back down to Earth much sooner than anticipated.

Selia Jindal, a recent Brown graduate and project lead, explained that the aim was to showcase inexpensive ways of deorbiting space debris. She stated, “This showed that we can do that...there are significant plans we can put in place to combat the space junk problem that is cost-effective.”

The main objective of SBUDNIC was to demonstrate that space debris can be reduced by using passive deorbiting devices that do not require any propulsion or complex mechanisms. The students chose Kapton polyimide, a material commonly used in spacecraft insulation, to make a drag sail that deployed like an umbrella once the satellite reached its orbit at about 520 kilometers above the Earth.

Impact on space debris reduction

The implications of this successful proof of concept could be substantial in the fight against space debris. 

Dheraj Ganjikunta, a Brown graduate of 2022 and the lead program manager of SBUDNIC, contrasted the project with other more expensive and complex solutions for space junk, such as space tow trucks or nets. Praising the SBUDNIC for its low-cost and simple approach to tackling the problem of space junk, he said that SBUDNIC was amazing because it used a simple $30 drag device that could be attached to satellites and shorten their orbital lifespan.

NASA reports that more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris or space junk are being monitored by the global Space Surveillance Network of the Department of Defense. The worst-case scenario is a satellite explosion setting off a chain reaction, hitting other satellites in the same orbit. Marco Cross, SBUDNIC’s chief engineer, warned, “We need to be prepared.”

Overwhelming success

Most satellites remain in orbit for an average of 25 years after serving their purpose. In line with the Federal Communications Commission's new 5-year rule for deorbiting satellites, SBUDNIC demonstrated a swift success.

SBUDNIC's drop was visibly exponential, burning up in the atmosphere from the heat generated from re-entry. While other similarly-sized satellites remained at higher altitudes, SBUDNIC's last known position was recorded at 146 kilometers.

A solar activity might have contributed to SBUDNIC's rapid descent, but the exact influence is still under study.

An unusual learning experience at Brown

Created on Brown's campus and developed as part of the Design of Space Systems course, SBUDNIC was built in a year by about 40 students from diverse fields such as engineering, economics, and sculpture.

Rick Fleeter, an adjunct associate professor in Brown's School of Engineering, reflected on the project, “In terms of depth of learning in this project, this is the kind of experience that I think students come to Brown for.”

As of mid-August, all other comparison satellites are still in orbit, a testament to SBUDNIC’s remarkable efficiency and design. The success of this project represents not just an academic achievement but a significant step forward in space technology, offering a low-cost and practical solution to a pressing global challenge.

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