Space debris impact monitoring and disposal by using a photonic chip integrated cubesatellite

We will develop a cube satellite, which will be equipped with photonic fiber-bragg grated sensors to monitor the impact of micro particles or space debris impacting on the cubesat. These chips are small and will save space inside for a drag sail payload to deorbit the cubesat from low earth orbit after its lifetime, such that it does not contribute to space debris itself.

Tijs Henselmans
Eindhoven University of Technology
Applied Physics and Engineering

Over het initiatief / About the initiative

Space debris impact monitoring and disposal by using a photonic chip integrated cubesatellite

In welke fase zit jouw initiatief? / In what stage is your initiative?


Heb je jouw initiatief al gevalideerd? / Did you validate your initiative?

Yes. We have validated the business case around photonic chips by talking to many photonic companies and we have validated the space debris issue by talking to experts at ESA ESTEC. We also have validated the link between these.

Meer informatie over jouw initiatief / More info about your initiative

Space debris is a growing issue in orbit. Currently, there are over 20000 objects in Earth orbit larger than a football, traveling at speeds of around 15000 kilometers per hour. Tens of collisions already happened with commercial spacecrafts in the past years and this number will only increase, amounting to billions of costs and increasing risks for human spaceflights. Next to this, space observation from Earth is contaminated by all pieces in orbit.

Eindhoven is famous for its semiconductor industry. Photonic chips are an emerging technology built upon this rich heritage. Photonic chips are very promising and behave differently in space compared to electronic chips. They are lightweight and are less affected by radiation. We want to use Photonic fiber-bragg grated sensors which are extremely small, to firstly, test how they behave and secondly, to monitor the impact of micrometeorites, or space debris on the sides/panels of our spacecraft and to estimate the degradation of your components. Other quantities such as strain and temperature can be measured simultaneously as well. This saves a lot of space in the spacecraft for other payloads.

Next to that, we want to give proof of concept that after the mission lifetime, it is possible to deorbit in a safe and sustainable way and not contribute to space debris. This is why we will equip a drag sail in the payload alongside cold gas propulsion to slow down and deorbit in a safe and controlled way. If a small cubesat can do this, any spacecraft can do it.

Wat is er anders/nieuw aan jouw idee/oplossing t.o.v. bestaande oplossingen? / What is different/new about your idea/solution compared to existing solutions??

Photonic chips are not much tested yet in space. Plans are being made, but future missions by the bigger agencies have a long development time. Photonic companies, on the other hand, do not have the resources to set up an entire launch campaign. Concerning the issue of space debris, there is no solution or alternative to solve that. The only thing that the bigger international space agencies do is monitor where all pieces are in a database, use mitigation strategies, and make use of smart algorithms to avoid collisions in their missions. There is a lot of innovation there, but it does not solve the problem, that space debris will only get worse. Creating the bridge by linking space debris and photonics is even more novel and not done by other people.

Wat zijn jouw volgende stappen om het verder te ontwikkelen? / What are your next steps to develop the initiative?

Currently, we are finalizing the exact mission statement together with the Photonics companies and our partners at ESA ESTEC. On top of that, we are currently seeking funding via subsidies, grants, and sponsors. Starting in September we will begin prototyping the subsystems and creating a model philosophy for the satellite itself.

If we can give proof of concept that photonic chips work well in space in certain areas, future satellites or missions could include testing out several applications in detail. Concerning the space debris issue, if a proper and sustainable way to deorbit the spacecraft is proven, the next steps are to think not only about in-space monitoring and disposal but also to remove other pieces of debris from orbit.

Wat heb je nodig om (nog meer) impact te maken met dit initiatief? / What do you need to make (more) impact with this initiative?

To have more impact, we need to have a sufficient budget to further develop the product and make sure that we have the capacity to conduct enough tests on the ground before launching. Next to that, a proper network for expertise and consultancy is a must for this project to succeed. The TU Eindhoven does not have an aerospace faculty which complicates things. Much expertise related to cubesats is out there and we want to share in that knowledge.