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NASA mini-sat parachutes to a halt in space, prangs into atmos

Could be means of clearing up orbital trash

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NASA has successfully tested an extraterrestrial rubbish collector that could sweep up the star system's space debris.

The agency's NanoSail-D is a teeny satellite that deployed the first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit and sailed around the planet for more than 240 days.

The sail is NASA's idea for cleaning up decommissioned satellites and space junk by floating it gently towards Earth and then annihilating it in the atmosphere.

The agency sent up the nanosatellite as a payload on FASTSAT on 19 November last year to test the low mass, high surface area sail.

"The NanoSail-D mission produced a wealth of data that will be useful in understanding how these types of passive deorbit devices react to the upper atmosphere," said Joe Casas, FASTSAT project scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Scientists are still analysing the data from the mission, but early indications are that the sail works as the boffins hoped.

"The final rate of descent depended on the nature of solar activity, the density of the atmosphere surrounding NanoSail-D and the angle of the sail to the orbital track," principal investigator Dean Alhorn said. "It is astounding to see how the satellite reacted to the sun's solar pressure. The recent solar flares increased the drag and brought the nanosatellite back home quickly."

And of course, the NanoSail-D did burn up on re-entry, exactly as it was intended to do, which is a fairly good sign as well. ®

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