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Interesting patents in the space industry
Andrew Balis
Andrew Balis

Space patents are on the rise as the space industry continues to look for new and innovative ways to improve exploration and technology. Two recent patent applications, US20230036143A1 and CN115556948A, demonstrate some exciting developments in the sector.

Space Junk

Let’s kick things off with a recently published “space junk” patent application filed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Published on 2 February 2023, patent application US20230036143A1 discloses a system and method for debris capture.

The patent outlines a system for capturing and removing debris in space, using a self-contained, autonomous spacecraft equipped with a net and a propulsion system. The spacecraft can identify and track debris in orbit, approach it, and capture it using the net. The patent also describes a method for disposing of the captured debris safely.

In more detail, the patent specification describes a space debris capture device 10 that is configured to find, capture and remove multiple pieces of space debris, before the space debris capture device 10 deorbits itself. The space debris capture device 10 is a 3-unit CubeSat that has a debris capture module 12, a control module 14 and a propulsion module 16 as shown below.

“Green propellant” can be used in the propulsion module 16 to move, transfer, adjust the positioning of the space debris capture device 10 in space. What is interesting is that the capture device 10 has four capture mechanisms 20 which appear to be in the form of barrels arranged in each quadrant of the CubeSat. The specification describes how the capture barrel is configured to capture a piece of space debris in the size range of 10 cm to 20 cm with a mass of less than 1kg.

As shown above, a capture net is fitted inside the upper chamber of each of the barrels. This capture net includes an electromagnetically charged tether and also includes carry-weights. The capture net can be launched toward a piece of space debris to entangle with it. The net and captured space debris is jettisoned from the device 10 such that the electromagnetically charged tether and net fall into a decaying orbit and will eventually burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere. The device 10 can use its propulsion system to maneuver to locate, capture, and jettison the remaining pieces of target debris.

What is perhaps most interesting are the algorithms described to place the device 10 into the correct position for capturing space debris, as well as when the device 10 is ready to capture a final remaining piece of space debris, the net is not jettisoned from the device 10. Rather, the entire device, including the final piece of capture space debris, is positioned into a decaying orbit.

This patent is important for the space industry because the growing amount of debris in orbit poses a significant risk to spacecraft such as satellites and the International Space Station. The ability to capture and remove debris in space could help to mitigate this risk and improve the safety and longevity of space missions. The technology outlined in the patent could also be used for in-space manufacturing, as it allows for the safe removal of failed or outdated equipment and materials.

It is important to consider that spacecraft should include a failsafe mechanism, such as a drag sail, to deorbit spacecraft within 5 years of their end of mission life. In this way, even if a problem such as a software bug or a propulsion issue occurs that is fatal to the working of the spacecraft, the spacecraft can be deorbited within the 5 year regulatory end of mission period.

Thermal Protection Systems

Another recently published patent application by the Institute of Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is patent application no. CN115556948A, published on 3 January 2023. The patent application outlines a method and system for protecting the sharp front edge of a hypersonic vehicle from high temperatures hypersonic air travel. The system uses a combination of heat-resistant materials, such as ceramics and metallic alloys, and a cooling system to dissipate the heat generated during re-entry.

The thermal protection method proposes to use the thermionic emission effect to solve one of the problems that hinders the development of hypersonic vehicles, the hindrance being the performance of the thermal protection system. The thermionic emission effect is a phenomenon that when the temperature of metal is increased, the kinetic energy of electrons in the metal is increased. When the kinetic energy exceeds the work function requirement, the electrons escape from the surface of the metal.

The thermal protection method disclosed can transfer the thermal load of a high-heat-flow-density area (sharp front edge) to an area (downstream of a sharp front edge flow field) with lower heat-flow density and sufficient structural space. This is achieved via an adjustable power supply that is connected between the leading edge of the hypersonic aircraft tip and the region to which the thermal load is transferred, so as to apply a negative bias voltage to the leading edge of the hypersonic aircraft tip, and the current density of the thermal electrons of the emission electrode is controlled by controlling the negative bias voltage of the adjustable power supply, so that the thermal load transfer capability is controlled.

This patent is significant for the space industry because hypersonic vehicles are being developed for a range of applications, including space tourism, military surveillance, and transportation of goods and people. However, the high temperatures generated during hypersonic travel pose a significant challenge for the design and operation of these vehicles. The technology outlined in the patent provides a potential solution that may be safe and reliable for protecting the front edge of hypersonic vehicles.

Patent applications like US20230036143A1 and CN115556948A demonstrate the importance of intellectual property protection in the space industry. By incentivising innovation and protecting inventors’ investments, patents encourage the development of new technologies and advancements in the sector. They also promote collaboration and competition, ensuring that the benefits of technological progress are shared across the industry and society as a whole.

In conclusion, US20230036143A1 and CN115556948A demonstrate some of the exciting developments in the space industry. The patents highlight the importance of protecting innovative ideas and inventions, and how they can contribute to the advancement of space technology and exploration. As the space industry continues to evolve, grow and obtain more funding, patents will continue to play a critical role in driving progress and innovation in the sector.

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About the author
Andrew Balis
Associate, Patent & Trade Mark Attorney
Andrew Balis is a Sydney patent and trade mark attorney specialising in mechanical and aerospace technology.

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