ESA Sign Deal To Remove A Piece Of Space Junk Out Of Earth's Orbit

A debris shield that was removed from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the International Space Station's cosmic particle detector, is pictured drifting away from the orbiting lab after spacewalkers Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano jettisoned it. Credit:JSC/NASA

The European Space Agency (ESA) is taking out the trash. ESA has announced this week they've signed a €86 million (over $100 million) deal with Swiss startup ClearSpace SA that will see the first mission to remove a piece of space junk from orbit.

By 2025, ClearSpace SA will launch the first active debris removal mission, ClearSpace-1, which will aim to capture and recover a small car-sized payload known as Vespa. This 112 kilogram (246 pounds) object was left in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of approximately 801 to 664 kilometers, following the second launch of Vega rocket back in 2013. The basic idea is to launch the ClearSpace-1 “chase” into low-Earth orbit where it will hunt down and rendezvous with the space junk inquisition. It will then grabble with robotic arms and effectively “tow truck” it back to Earth. Both the chaser and Vespa will then burn up in the atmosphere.

In 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) asked for companies to pitch for a solution for removing debris from space for the first time. Out of a panel of more than 12 candidates, ClearSpace was selected. 

However, this novel move is just the tip of the iceberg. Space junk is becoming a growing scourge in the neighborhood around our planet. ESA estimates there are over 34,000 bits of human-made space junk larger than 10 centimeters in Earth’s orbit that have been produced from rocket launches and satellites. Some of these may be no larger than an apple, but some will be a substantial size. 

Clearly, having chunky bits of rogue rocket equipment floating around in low-Earth orbit could pose a significant risk to active satellites and spacecraft. Just the past year alone, the International Space Station (ISS) had to use its thrusters to dodge a piece of space junk on at least three different occasions in 2020 alone.

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water. That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue,” Jan Wörner, ESA Director General, said in a statement

“This is the right time for such a mission. The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before. Today we have nearly 2,000 live satellites in space and more than 3,000 failed ones,” added Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace.

“And in the coming years the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit to deliver wide-coverage, low-latency telecommunications and monitoring services. The need is clear for a ‘tow truck’ to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region," Piguet explained.

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