INFLATABLE satellites have been developed by a Scottish university in a bid to cut down on space junk orbiting Earth.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) there are over 500,000 obsolete pieces of man-made debris orbiting the Earth causing hazards for other satellites.
But the new gadgets – which are made of thin plastic – burn up when they re-enter the atmosphere which means no mess is left behind in space or on the ground where they land.
Engineering students from StrathclydeUniversity will now travel to Sweden later this year to test a prototype at an altitude of 35km – around the same height Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from when he broke the speed of sound last year.
The new satellites are tipped to be the future of taking atmospheric measurements and will also be able to perform high-altitude observations of disaster areas such as forest fires.
The Glasgow-based research team won backing from European space agencies to investigate the use of inflatable satellites.
The current models are made from ultra-thin plastic but when they are inflated they form a tough protective barrier around fragile equipment kept inside.
They are designed to last for a few months but satellites with chemically hardened skins that can last several years are also being developed.
The satellite is sent up on a rocket and deployed in low earth orbit – it would then inflate due to residual air trapped inside ¬before the satellite began to perform its observation tasks.
When the work of the satellite is over – anywhere between two and 12 months – a signal from a team on Earth causes the structure to change shape.
The change in shape then causes it to slow down to such an extent that it drops out of orbit rather than stay floating in space.
They then burn up as they descend through the atmosphere at great speed leaving no potentially damaging debris behind.
Andrew Allan, a 22-year-old Masters student working on the inflatable satellite project, said the current prototype consisted of a number of inflatable pods housing the satellite’s electronics, which are mounted on a 1.5 square metre platform.
He said: “This project is about laying the building bricks for this kind of satellite.
“Hopefully, we can show it’s possible and it’s worthwhile.
“It is designed to leave orbit so it will nothing up there and, because it will burn up, nothing will reach the Earth’s surface.”
In 2009, US and Russian communications satellites ?collided in space at an altitude of about 800km over Siberia.
The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of traceable debris to the inventory of space junk.
The problem of defunct satellite technology was again highlighted in 2011 when large pieces of the six-tonne UARS spacecraft plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
Dr Massimiliano Vasile, the director of Strathclyde’s ¬Advanced Space Concepts ¬Laboratory, said the issue of space debris had become so “compelling” it could no longer be ignored.
He said: “The estimates about the number of pieces of debris are changing every year.
“The debris can be anything from launch parts to pieces of satellites which have detached or have been involved in a collision. Then there are the satellites themselves.
“The problem has become compelling because the impact of not doing something now outweighs the [financial] cost of tackling it.”
The next stage for the Strathclyde students is to travel to Esrange in the far north of Sweden in September for the launch of their prototype.
The launch was made possible by the Experiments for University Students initiative, which is supported by the European Space Agency, the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).
At the end of last year, the students attended a selection workshop at the ESA’s Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) near Amsterdam, where their project was ¬accepted on to the initiative.