HEDGE Hypersonic ReEntry Deployable Glider Experiment; Responsibility and Regulation in the Space Debris Crisis

Fogarty, Michael, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Rogers, Hannah, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Goyne, Christopher, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

Human investment in and reliance on space infrastructure has grown exponentially over the previous several decades, and is liable to continue its rapid expansion long into the future. Concurrently, the space debris crisis has ballooned from hypothetical to a very real and looming threat to the utilization of space as we know it. With only voluntary guidelines currently in place for the majority of spacecraft that exist in low-earth orbit (LEO) regarding debris generation throughout their mission, the immense number of orbital objects large enough to inflict serious damage on spacecraft are becoming increasingly difficult to track and manage. Given the distribution of responsibility for the crisis itself, with stakeholders including governments, militaries, and private corporations among others, designing and enforcing responsible practices in space that mitigate the creation of orbital debris has been historically challenging. To ensure the continued benefit of our pursuits in space long into the future countries will soon need to adopt a view of our orbits as finite resources, which must be carefully conserved, and use national and international regulation to weigh the cost of orbital debris for all spacecraft against their benefit to our holistic space infrastructure.
The same increased accessibility to space that has expanded the quantity of satellite deployments and escalated the space debris crisis does offer a tremendous opportunity to academic institutions. As satellites have become smaller and cheaper to launch, designing spacecraft within the budgets of universities or grant funding they may be awarded has become feasible. The modularization and commercialization of small satellite components has been especially effective at reducing spacecraft cost, and many such parts are available to build standard sizes of small satellites called CubeSats. A CubeSat conforms to one of several standard sizes with rectangular footprints, making them easily deployable in large numbers from launch vehicles and allowing for mass production of their typical subcomponents. The technical portion of this thesis investigates the viability of a concept to leverage the relatively low cost of CubeSat design and deployment to run a hypersonics experiment from space as the satellite’s orbit slowly decays and it eventually reenters the atmosphere. Hypersonic aerodynamics are a major focus of research by NASA and the DoD, largely for their potential defense applications, but the conditions of flight at such speeds are difficult to study because of the cost required to achieve them. The goal of the experiment conceptually explored in this technical project is to demonstrate that undergraduate students can design a CubeSat to deploy a hypersonics experiment upon atmospheric reentry, leveraging the low cost of CubeSat components as a means to perform simple hypersonics testing from small satellites more affordably than by traditional means.
Both portions of this thesis explore opposing consequences of the increased accessibility of space for large and small stakeholders alike. The technical portion offers insight to one conclusion of the STS portion, which is that not all space missions can be assessed equally regarding their generation of debris. Procedures that create debris from a spacecraft are often the simplest mechanical means to accomplish certain maneuvers; for example, the hypersonic test article from the technical portion will be deployed from the CubeSat frame and leave its rectangular frame, as well as some deployment components, floating behind. Learning from the STS portion, it is very apparent that across all spacecraft such procedures result in small debris in space orders of magnitude larger in quantity than the spacecraft which created them. However, strict debris mitigation requirements could easily amplify the complexity of tasks beyond the capabilities of smaller stakeholders in space – small companies, prospective spacefaring nations, or a class of engineering students hoping to learn about satellite design through a CubeSat mission. In this case, I learned that context matters for debris mitigation requirements on space missions. An academic research mission on a small budget should likely not be held to the same standard as a corporate satellite constellation. Still, while enforceable regulations remain absent, a significant component of responsibility to manage debris falls on spacecraft designers themselves, including a capstone research team. Although preventing the creation of debris entirely would be very challenging, it has been a focus for us to carefully choose when we can accept debris-creating maneuvers in order to avoid risking damage to other spacecraft and be sure all components will fall into the atmosphere as quickly as possible, leaving our small area of orbit like we found it.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Social Construction of Technology, Hypersonic, CubeSat, Space Debris, Space Policy

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Christopher Goyne
STS Advisor: Hannah Rogers
Technical Team Members: Brendan Angelotti, Samantha Castro, Margaret Che, Jonathan Cummins, Desmond DeVille, Michael Fogarty, Jashianette Fournier Jaiman, Ryan Jansen, Emma Jensen, James Parker Johnson, Nicholas Lu, Adam Obedin, Eva Paleo, Cristina Rodriguez, Josh Willoughby

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