In the future, satellites reaching the end of their working lives might carry a packaged ultra-lightweight "gossamer sail," the increased aerodynamic drag of which would pull the craft out of orbit to burn up in the high atmosphere, reducing the risk of catastrophic collisions, the ESA said in a release from its Paris headquarters.
The "gossamer sail" has been subjected to rigorous testing, and ESA scientists say they hope to see it validated in orbit using a demonstration satellite by the end of 2014.
At launch, the Gossamer Deorbit Sail would be extremely compact at just 6 inches by 6 inches by 10 inches and weigh just under 5 pounds.
When needed it would expand in minutes to almost 30 square yards, enough to bring down a satellite of up to 1,500 pounds, the scientists said.
The sail, developed in Britain at the University of Surrey's Space Center, is primarily intended for satellites in low orbits, some 400 miles up, where there is still sufficient atmosphere for the sail to generate the needed drag.