Orbnet: a new device to create more space in space

3 March 2023

Written by Alice, Katharina and Tilly, Year 12

After five long months of planning, writing and discussing the elastic properties of nets, our team is through to the global final of the Conrad Challenge! Although sometimes demanding, it has been a fun and exciting journey, developing our initial idea into something viable, through research, consulting experts and calculations.

The Conrad Challenge is an annual competition that encourages young people to develop a new, science-based innovation and try their hand at being an entrepreneur. We entered the ‘Aerospace & Aviation’ category, which had previous entries such as micro-sensors that detect air leaks on board a spacecraft, a compressive suit that locates where the blood pressure within the body drops during its time in space and an aerogel made from banana fibres for use as insulation.

From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to combat space junk; disused satellites and other man-made debris that are in orbit around the Earth. Space debris is incredibly dangerous to active satellites, and in recent years has become an increasingly concerning problem as corporations and government agencies simply abandon their satellites without removing them from orbit. Once up in orbit, the lack of air resistance means that this debris could stay in space indefinitely, without falling back down to Earth.

Our initial idea was to create a device that could break down large satellites into smaller pieces when they had become obsolete. However, we discovered that even very small pieces of space debris could cause irreversible damage upon collision with another spacecraft. The European Space Agency estimates that there are 29,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm currently in orbit, and 670,000 above 1 cm. Even a 1 cm object could disable a spacecraft, and can penetrate the shields of the International Space Station. Breaking down larger satellites into smaller pieces that remain in orbit would actually make the problem worse, because smaller pieces are harder to see, track and therefore avoid.

We then researched Whipple shields, which are protective devices that sit on the outside of spacecraft. They are designed to absorb the shock of the impact from debris impact, destroying itself in the process. Whipple shields are effective against medium and small pieces of debris, but they have a significant disadvantage by not being reusable. Once a piece of debris has destroyed part of the Whipple shield, it must be replaced, or run the risk of another piece hitting the exact same spot.

We went back to the drawing board and brainstormed how we could circumvent this issue. By pure coincidence, one of our team members was wearing fishnet sleeves that day, which inspired us to take a new direction: using nets to slow and stop small pieces of debris before they hit the spacecraft. A net design would be able to elongate to absorb the impact of a small particle without itself being destroyed in the process, unlike single-use Whipple shields. We designed a series of nets so that it would be able to slow down orbital debris. However, we realised that this would take up too much space and would no longer be as useful as a Whipple Shield on the surface of a spacecraft. So instead we thought about where else this netting system could be integrated and decided that it would be best to fix them on the inside of a small drone-like spacecraft. The drone could fly around at-risk satellites and position itself in the path of any incoming space debris.

Although the journey of starting the Challenge to producing a finished idea was not a smooth one, we found that with enough biscuits on hand, we could work through just about anything. Our initial hurdle was that we took longer than other teams to come up with our idea, which was quite stressful. We wanted an idea that we were all passionate about, but was also viable, so there were a lot of long discussions and drawing random diagrams on whiteboards. However, in the end, we did manage to agree.

Another issue we faced was hitting deadlines. Part of the requirements of the competition was submitting visual aids to demonstrate the project, but our animations would sometimes only be finished a few days before the deadline. If we were to do the challenge again, we would make sure that we got everything finished early, to avoid the stress of an incoming deadline.

Overall, the Conrad Challenge has been really fun, and provided a means through which we can explore slightly bizarre concepts and try what it is like to run a start-up. If you or someone you know is considering trying it out, we have a few pieces of advice. Firstly, brainstorming is an important part of the process, and you shouldn’t immediately dismiss someone’s idea because it sounds absurd. New innovations tend to raise a few eyebrows, but it wouldn’t be an innovation if it was already a mainstream idea! Secondly, make sure that everyone is on board with the idea. It makes teamwork much more effective if you are all passionate about the project. Finally, reach out to experts in the field; you have nothing to lose by simply asking to talk to someone. Although it may seem daunting to email a complete stranger we found that the experts we asked were more than willing to give their time to advise us.

We look forward to going to the final in Texas soon, where we will join the other finalist teams in presenting our innovation to a panel of judges and investors. Until then, we will be very busy refining our ideas, making a presentation, running calculations and, of course, eating more biscuits.

By Orbnet, with many thanks to Alex Norstrand who is helping us with publicity while we try our best to write a script for the next stage of the competition.

To stay updated on our progress, follow us on Instagram and Twitter: @orbnettech


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