Scientists at the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) have taken part in a new experiment that aims to resolve the increasing problem of space junk.

The new Daedalus experiment sees scientists explore the effect on satellites of Icarus de-orbit sails, which are made with 25μm-thick aluminium-coated Kapton, a highly heat-resistant polyimide film.

Once deployed, the sail increases drag and causes a controlled descent into the Earth’s atmosphere where the satellite will burn up.

The first Daedalus trial includes the CanX-7 Canadian satellite, which already deployed its de-orbiting sail in May and is expected to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere in two years.

“Space junk clutters up the space environment and ultimately pose a hazard to the useful satellites we rely on.”

Two other satellites, namely TechDemoSat-1 (TDS1) and Carbonite-1 (CBNT1), have also been fitted with Icarus de-orbit sails and are expected to begin their descents later this year.

A part of the Space Situational Awareness Project of Dstl’s Space Programme, the experiment has received £800m in funding from the government’s Innovation Initiative programme.

Dstl Space Programme principal scientist Sean Murphy said: “It’s vitally important that we remove satellites that have reached end-of-life so they don’t remain in orbit as pieces of space junk.

“Space junk clutters up the space environment and ultimately pose a hazard to the useful satellites we rely on.”

Hundreds of thousands of manmade objects are currently orbiting Earth, but the number of operational satellites stands at less than 5,000.

Situated at within 2,000km of the Earth’s surface, the low-Earth orbit (LEO) is considered to be the most congested area and could form further debris due to collisions.

Once completed, the Dstl experiment is expected to help characterise changes in the brightness of the satellite caused by the sail deployment.

It will also enable to quantify the drag increase due to the de-orbit sail and critically compare different orbital dynamics models.

Dstl is also using sensors to collect data to support the experiment, which is expected to help the military community.