Two years ago, ClearSpace – a spin-off of EPFL, created in 2018 by space debris experts – won a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the first mission to remove a large debris object from Earth orbit. This week, the Switzerland-based space company and its industrial partners announced that they successfully passed their first major program review with the ESA for its ground-breaking mission.
With the increase in the number of space launches, space debris has also increased. The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, including to the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard. Finding ways to remove at least some of all that space junk is becoming increasingly important.
Ever since ESA commissioned ClearSpace’s first project, ClearSpace-1, in 2019, the company has been on a mission to clean up space junk. As a key step in the development of this unique debris-removal mission, ClearSpace has designed a four-armed capture system for its robotic satellite. Once the debris is captured, the robotic spacecraft will then safely pilot the object into Earth’s atmosphere, where it is expected to burn.
This innovative technology successfully passed proof-of-concept testing at ESA’s ESTEC technology center in the Netherlands in October 2022, a major milestone that contributed to ClearSpace’s successful program review.
In addition, ESA and the participating States have reconfirmed their support for active debris removal by fully funding the next phase of the ClearSpace-1 program during ESA’s Ministerial Council last November.
ClearSpace is now qualified to proceed to the next phase of ClearSpace-1, continuing with its industrial partners on the satellite‘s detailed design, procurement of spacecraft equipment, and manufacturing of the engineering model servicer satellite.
The initial plan was to launch ClearSpace-1 in 2025, but now it has been moved to 2026 following the recent review.
“This is a major milestone for ClearSpace, setting us on course to become one of the world’s leading In-Orbit Servicing companies, and is also a major step toward the resolution of the space debris issue,” said Luc Piguet ClearSpace CEO and Cofounder. “Debris represents a growing threat to the satellite services we all depend on, including research on climate change, weather prediction, communication, and a host of other applications. The cost of inaction is only increasing.”
In ESA’s Space Debris Environment Report, the agency stresses that it is necessary to start actively cleaning up the space environment – removing existing, larger debris objects from busy regions – to stop the exponential growth of space debris.