Reducing debris threat from satellite batteries

March 14, 2014, European Space Agency

So far, about 200 explosions and at least 5 collisions in space have occured. Further explosions and collisions are very likely. The explosions are mainly caused by onboard energy sources, either due to pressure build-up in propellant tanks, battery explosions, or the ignition of hypergolic fuels. Each explosion creates thousands of small debris objects. The most prominent collision event and the first known one between two catalog objects was in 1996 between the Cerise Satellite and a fragment of an Ariane upper stage explosion. Credit: ESA
(Phys.org) —Across a satellite's working life, batteries keep the craft's heart beating whenever it leaves sunlight. But after its mission ends, those same batteries may threaten catastrophe.

Space debris mitigation rules require the complete deactivation of electrical power sources aboard a satellite on retirement, in order to guard against explosive accidents that might produce fresh debris dangerous to other satellites.

Now a new study by ESA's Clean Space initiative – tasked with reducing the space industry's environmental impacts on both Earth and space – aims to evaluate battery behaviour after a satellite shuts down, assessing the risk of breakup and ensuring full 'passivation'.

Batteries are among a satellite's bulkier items of equipment. Typically, they feed their host with power during launch. Once in orbit, it switches to power from its solar arrays, but the battery is an important backup to store power for eclipses and emergencies.

To reach the high reliability and performance a satellite demands, extending across many months or years, batteries are carefully designed and extensively tested in advance of launch.

By contrast, their behaviour after their parent mission has been shut down remains a relative blind spot.

As a satellite drifts freely, could batteries endure the harsh environment of orbit – including wild temperature swings, degradation of thermal control and components as well as radiation exposure – without leakage or bursting?

Some past breakups have been triggered by malfunctions, although mostly before the 1990s and involving older non-lithium designs.

This multidisciplinary study aims to ensure a fully inert system at the end of a mission, perhaps through physical disconnection, while also preventing accidental premature passivation.

Explore further: Capturing derelict satellites adrift in orbit

Related Stories

Capturing derelict satellites adrift in orbit

February 24, 2014

Standard space dockings are difficult enough, but a future ESA mission plans to capture derelict satellites adrift in orbit. Part of an effort to control space debris, the shopping list of new technologies this ambitious ...

Sentinel-1 unfolds its large solar wings and radar antenna

February 24, 2014

When Sentinel-1 is placed in orbit around Earth in a few weeks, it has to perform a complicated dance routine to unfold its large solar wings and radar antenna. Engineers have recently been making sure the moves are well ...

Cleaning up space debris with sailing satellites

February 3, 2014

Since the birth of space flight in 1957, the number of man-made objects orbiting the Earth has grown every year. There are now more than 15,000 such objects larger than 10cm, at least those that we know of. Even very small ...

Recommended for you

Outer solar system experts find 'far out there' dwarf planet

December 17, 2018

A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our Solar System. It is the first known Solar System object that has been detected at a distance that is more than 100 times farther than Earth is ...

A new neptune-size exoplanet

December 16, 2018

The remarkable exoplanet discoveries made by the Kepler and K2 missions have enabled astronomers to begin to piece together the history of the Earth and to understand how and why it differs from its diverse exoplanetary cousins. ...

Mars InSight lander seen in first images from space

December 14, 2018

On Nov. 26, NASA's InSight mission knew the spacecraft touched down within an 81-mile-long (130-kilometer-long) landing ellipse on Mars. Now, the team has pinpointed InSight's exact location using images from HiRISE, a powerful ...

Video: Enjoying the Geminids from above and below

December 14, 2018

On the night of December 13, into the morning of December 14, 2018, tune into the night sky for a dazzling display of fireballs. Thanks to the International Space Station, this sky show – the Geminids meteor shower—will ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.