Swiss startup ClearSpace has been awarded the world’s first contract to remove space debris – such as defunct satellites and abandoned rocket stages – from the planet’s orbit, in order to avoid a calamitous cascading collision event that could render space inaccessible. Tasked by the European Space Agency (ESA), ClearSpace expects to remove the first pieces of space junk by 2025.
The contract was awarded via a competitive process to the startup established by a team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, an institute that specialises in space engineering.
Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace commented: “The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before. Today we have nearly 2000 live satellites in space and more than 3000 failed ones. 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.”
NASA currently estimates there is more than 23,000 bits of debris larger than 10cm in orbit; a further 500,000 bits of debris between 1 and 10 cm in diameter are thought to be spinning in orbit, putting active space infrastructure at risk.
On the right is a photo taken by British astronaut Tim Peake aboard the International Space Station in 2016.
It shows a 7 mm-diameter circular chip that was gouged out of a window by a paint flake or small metal fragment; estimated to be less than a few thousandths of a millimetres across.
ClearSpace-1’s “Payload Adapter”
The first target for the ClearSpace-1 mission will be the Payload Adapter; a discarded structure that formed the upper stage of the ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. With a mass of 100kg, it now floats in an 800 km by 660 km altitude orbit.
The Payload Adapter has been chosen as the first target due to its size and mass which is similar to many of the small satellites that the project hopes to remove in the coming years. This particular upper stage component is simple in shape and its robust architecture makes it a perfect test case for ClearSpace-1, which will use four robotic arms to capture and dragged it into a decaying orbit causing it to burn up in the atmosphere, as will the ClearSpace-1 craft.
“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. ESA’s Member States have given their strong support to this new mission, which also points the way forward to essential new commercial services in the future,” commented ESA director general Jan Wörner.
Space Debris It’s a Big Issue
Space Debris is a growing concern as our societies become more and more reliant on the technological and communication advances provided by the growing satellite infrastructure in orbit.
With the privatisation of space the number of satellite launches is growing exponentially.
SpaceX’s internet connectivity delivery satellite constellation Starlink currently has 120 low-orbit satellites in place, with SpaceX planning to launch thousands more in the coming years. The firm’s Starlink constellation has already received some flak from astronomers around the world as it is clearly visible even at this nascent stage of its deployment.
Wow!! I am in shock!! The huge amount of Starlink satellites crossed our skies tonight at @cerrotololo. Our DECam exposure was heavily affected by 19 of them! The train of Starlink satellites lasted for over 5 minutes!! Rather depressing… This is not cool! pic.twitter.com/gK0ekbpLJe
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler proposed a nightmare scenario, known as Kessler syndrome, during which an object in orbit collides with another satellite or abandoned rocket stage causing debris to collide with other objects resulting in a collisional cascading event that effectively takes out all satellite infrastructure in low orbit. If the worst was to happen humanity’s ability to conduct any kind of space endeavours would be extremely hampered for a significant period of time.
Luisa Innocenti, heading ESA’s Clean Space initiative commented that: “We need to develop technologies to avoid creating new debris and removing the debris already up there. NASA and ESA studies show that the only way to stabilise the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items. Accordingly we will be continuing our development of essential guidance, navigation and control technologies and rendezvous and capture methods through a new project called Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing – ADRIOS. The results will be applied to ClearSpace-1. This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process.”
Last month following a two day conference in Seville, Spain, the ESA finalised a £12.1 billion budget for the next five years after its 22 member states agreed to increase their commitments by 10 percent. That investment will go towards funding a crewed station orbiting the moon and a host of scientific and business focused projects such as the development of solar storm warning systems. The UK is set to invest £1.8 billion towards these projects over the next five years
Jan Wörner the ESA’s director general commented: “Bringing together our Member States, 22 governments that change regularly, and agreeing on such inspirational projects to share a joint future in space might seem an impossible task on paper. But in two days in Seville, we have proved it is possible.”