Spinnaker3 drag sail set for test launch

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A drag sail developed at Purdue University to pull launch vehicles in space back to Earth is set to undergo a test launch. 

The mission is scheduled to launch today (September 2, 2021) from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California to evaluate how well the prototype helps its vehicle deorbit from space after mission completion.

Faster deorbiting times could mitigate against spacecraft and launch vehicles turning into space debris as they wait to deorbit, a process that Purdue said can take days, months or years without assistance. Abandoned, lost or post-mission space vehicles are part of the more than nine thousand tons of space debris currently traveling through Earth’s lower orbit.

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Named the Spinnaker3, the drag sail will be riding on a rocket from Firefly Aerospace along with six other prototypes for testing. The launch is a part of Firefly’s DREAM Mission, carrying educational payloads into orbit.

The plan is for the drag sail to specifically deorbit the upper stage of the Firefly launch vehicle. Developers expect the Spinnaker3 to reduce the vehicle’s upper stage deorbiting process from 25 to 15 days.

The sail will deploy at the end of the rocket’s mission and use atmospheric drag to assist with the deorbiting process. At full deployment, the sail is 194 square feet and is made of CP1, a fluorinated polyimide developed by high-performance materials designer NeXolve.

drag sail
Purdue Ph.D. candidate Arly Black (front) and lab engineer Anthony Cofer test sail deployment for Spinnaker3 (Credit: Purdue University image/David Spencer)

Images of the drag sail in space will be captured by a camera mounted on the Firefly launch vehicle upper stage. The vehicle’s deorbit timeline will be evaluated based upon tracking data provided the United States Space Command.

The drag sail was produced by a team of students, faculty and staff at Purdue’s Space Flight Projects Laboratory. The team dedicated a year to design and development, and lab testing was completed in the spring. Development took place under the direction of David Spencer, a Purdue adjunct associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

Spencer is also mission manager for the Mars Sample Return Campaign at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and founder of Vestigo Aerospace LLC, a start-up producing Spinnaker drag sail prototypes for different sizes of space vehicles.