Benefits and risks of using electrodynamic tethers to de-orbit spacecraft

Carmen Pardini, Toshiya Hanada, Paula H. Krisko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Citations (Scopus)


By using electrodynamic drag to greatly increase the orbital decay rate, an electrodynamic space tether can remove spent or dysfunctional spacecraft from low Earth orbit (LEO) rapidly and safely. Moreover, the low mass requirements of such tether devices make them highly advantageous compared to conventional rocket-based de-orbit systems. However, a tether system is much more vulnerable to space debris impacts than a typical spacecraft and its design must be proved to be safe up to a certain confidence level before being adopted for potential applications. To assess space debris related concerns, in March 2001 a new task (Action Item 19.1) on the "Potential Benefits and Risks of Using Electrodynamic Tethers for End-of-life De-orbit of LEO Spacecraft" was defined by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Two tests were proposed to compute the fatal impact rate of meteoroids and orbital debris on space tethers in circular orbits, at different altitudes and inclinations, as a function of the tether diameter to assess the survival probability of an electrodynamic tether system during typical de-orbiting missions. IADC members from three agencies, the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), participated in the study and different computational approaches were specifically developed within the framework of the IADC task. This paper summarizes the content of the IADC AI 19.1 Final Report. In particular, it introduces the potential benefits and risks of using tethers in space, it describes the assumptions made in the study plan, it compares and discusses the results obtained by ASI, JAXA and NASA for the two tests proposed. Some general conclusions and recommendations are finally extrapolated from this massive and intensive piece of research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)571-588
Number of pages18
JournalActa Astronautica
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aerospace Engineering


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