Space Lace: Net Fishing in Low Earth Orbit

Space Lace: Net Fishing in Low Earth Orbit

Wes McRae | Apr 14, 2023 – Atlanta, GA

Lisa Marks is launching the ancient craft of fishing villages into space vehicle design. Her work adapting traditional textile handcraft to modern problems created a unique opportunity for collaboration cleaning up space debris.

According to NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office (OPDO), this debris jeopardizes future space projects. Large objects like rocket bodies and non-functional satellites are the source of fragmentation debris.

The OPDO website says removal of even five of the highest-risk objects per year could stabilize the low Earth orbit debris environment.

A research team with members from the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, and the Space Systems Design Laboratory has developed a concept using a net to capture and de-orbit large debris.

A mutual connection at Tech's GVU recommended that the team speak to Lisa Marks, assistant professor in the School of Industrial Design, based on her work combining traditional textile with new materials and methods.

Putting Textiles in Space Requires Creative Expertise

Concept diagram showing satellite capturing and deorbiting a spent rocket fuselage.
Photo: Courtesy of Georgia Tech Research Institute

“There’s a lot of different projects on space debris happening all around the world,” Marks said, “and there’ve been a few concept papers talking about using a net.”

“But all the drawings of the net are basic concepts, just a square with a few hatches through it. No one has figured out what that net might be.”

Marks researches ways to combine traditional textile handcraft with algorithmic modeling. “I specialize in analyzing the shape of every stitch and how we can use that stitch differently. Can we create new patterns through coding, or make it larger and out of wood?”

“It allows me to think really creatively about how we can use different textiles.”

This innovative, exploratory approach is a natural fit to create a net for a job no has ever done. “There's a lot of technical considerations with this,” Marks said. 

“It must pack incredibly small, weigh very little, and still be strong enough to capture and drag a rocket fuselage. There are considerations just for a material to exist in space. It needs to have low UV reactivity, low off gassing.”

“We need to understand every single little aspect of each of these techniques in order to do this.”

Static Nets Catch Fish; Slippery Nets Catch Rockets

One hand holding a net of thin black cord in the middle. The net is draped over the person's other hand, below.

Marks is working with Teflon, using the same knots used for fishing nets, but the non-traditional material means the nets work differently than fishing nets, she said. “These knots are made to be static, because you don’t want fish to get through the nets. But because Teflon is so slippery, the knots move around.”

“I think it will help the net’s strength, because the net will deform around irregular shapes before it breaks. What makes it unsuitable for fishing and annoying to work with becomes a huge benefit for what we need it to do.”

Some traditional handcraft techniques are dying out, and Marks sees projects like this as a reason preserving these techniques is important. “We don’t know what problems we’re going to have to solve in the future, and these crafts can be used in really surprising ways.”

“I would not have thought, ‘Netted filet lace, that’s how we’re going to solve a space problem!’ But if we lose this type of lace, we can’t solve space problems with it.”

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