Human exploration and exploitation of space have left millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, threatening possibly disastrous collisions between satellites and spacecraft, they said.
Researchers in Glasgow's school of engineering have helped develop the Aerodynamic End Of Life Deorbit System, or AEOLDOS, to help ensure that objects sent into space in the future can be removed from orbit at the end of their operational cycle.
AEOLDOS is a lightweight, foldable "air brake" that can be added to small satellites before they are launched into low Earth orbit.
When the satellite is at the end of its operational life, the air brake, made from a thin membrane supported by flexible struts that extend like a tape measure, generates aerodynamic drag from the extremely thin upper atmosphere that still exists in near-Earth space, the researchers said. The satellite then burns up as it falls back to Earth.
"It's only been 55 years since Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, was sent into orbit, but since then we've managed to make quite a mess of the space around our planet," Glasgow researcher Patrick Harkness said.
"The rate at which we're putting objects into orbit is accelerating each year, which is why it's vital for us to take more control over how they can be removed from orbit once they have served their purpose."