The rising amount of debris in space is a growing threat to the future and safety of space activity. According to the latest European Space Agency report on the space environment, there are more than 25,000 tracked objects, including satellites, upper stages, and debris, in space. The agency, therefore, plans to carry out a cleaning operation.
In this regard, the European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an €86 million contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace – a spin-off of EPFL, created in 2018 by space debris experts – to launch the first mission to remove space debris. This mission, named ClearSpace-1, aims to develop sustainable technology to clean space as well as provide other services in orbit to support a new sustainable space economy.
ClearSpace-1’s mission is to develop a robot-like spacecraft with four articulated arms, which will ultimately enable space debris to be removed safely. Its first task scheduled for 2025 after launching from the Kourou space center in French Guiana, will be to bring down the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) left by the Vega rocket placed in orbit in 2013, the size of a 112 kg satellite. With its articulated arms, the robot will remove Vespa and move it closer to the earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up and disintegrate.
A simple task, but it will be more complex than it seems. You should know that Vespa was left in an approximately 800 km by 660 km altitude gradual disposal orbit, with a size similar to that of a small satellite, and spins on itself. However, this debris was also chosen because it does not contain propellants liable to explode!
Likewise, ClearSpace-1 is part of the ADRIOS program of the European Space Agency that is responsible for developing in-orbit services for satellites such as refueling, repairs, and orbital maneuvers.
“Space debris and our current use of space, especially in low earth orbit, is a growing risk for both manned spacecraft and operational satellites,” says Claude Nicollier, ESA/NASA astronaut and Chairman of ClearSpace’s advisory board. “The time for action is now: we need to adopt space traffic management based on sustainability; we need to be able to de-orbit satellites that break down and strictly limit the lifetime of low earth orbit satellites, especially those in constellations. It will no longer be acceptable in the future to leave upper stages of launchers in orbit, and those already in orbit today should be eliminated as far as possible.“
The call announced by the intergovernmental organization has aimed to find a permanent solution for the elimination of waste from space and aimed to find a form of active cleaning, demonstrating that it is feasible to use current technologies for the future disposal of space waste.