ESA signs 102 million dollar deal with Swiss startup to bring back space junk

The mission will be targeting a part of the Vespa rocket, that is a size of a small satellite itself, which was used to hold and then release a satellite in 2013.


The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a 86 million-euro ($102 million) contract with ClearSpace SA to bring a large piece of orbital trash back to Earth. ClearSpace is a Swiss startup that provides in-orbit servicing and space debris removal and was selected by ESA in 2019 for this mission. Clearspace-1 will launch in 2025.

Defunct man-made objects that are orbiting in space, particularly in Earth's orbit are called space debris. It can consist of natural debris from meteoroids as well. NASA estimated that there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball that are currently orbiting the Earth. It will only continue to build as the commercial space industry grows and more rockets are launched to orbit and deep space.

Some of these debris move at speeds of up to 28,163 kmph (17,500 mph) and is fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. This creates an unsafe environment for satellites, which are positioned and frequently moved to accommodate the orbital path of debris in orbit.

 ESA signs 102 million dollar deal with Swiss startup to bring back space junk

A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked by the US Air Force. Roughly 95% of the these objects are debris/not-functional satellites. Image credit: NASA

ESA said that the deal with ClearSpace SA will lead to the "first active debris removal mission" and a custom-made four-armed claw spacecraft will capture and bring down part of a rocket once used to deliver a satellite into orbit. The debris will be brought down to a lower orbit where the duo will enter the atmosphere and burn up.

ESA and ClearSpace SA bought expect this to be the first of a series of debris removal missions and also envision a future where they will be capable of removing multiplier objects at a time.

Experts have long warned that hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris circling the planet — including an astronaut’s lost mirror — pose a threat to functioning satellites and even the International Space Station. Several teams are working on ways to tackle the problem.

In a report by Science, Darren McKnight, a space debris expert at the technology company Centauri, applauds ESA for being one of the few agencies that is taking action to remove space debris but is also worried that this will be a very slow process. to take action.

“If we don’t get started soon, we’re going to be in big trouble,” he added. “We need to take baby steps fast.”

The target: Vespa

The mission will be targeting the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter). It was used to hold and then release a satellite in 2013. It weighs about 112 kilograms (247 pounds) which is almost the size of a small satellite.

According to the press release, the object was left in an approximately 801 km by 664 km-altitude gradual disposal orbit.

“Think of all of the orbital captures that have occurred up until this point and they have all taken place with cooperative, fully-controlled target objects,” explains ESA Director General Jan Wörner to SciTechDaily. “With space debris, by definition no such control is possible: instead the objects are adrift, often tumbling randomly.

“So this first capture and disposal of an uncooperative space object represents an extremely challenging achievement. But with overall satellite numbers set to grow rapidly in the coming decade, regular removals are becoming essential to keep debris levels under control, to prevent a cascade of collisions that threaten to make the debris problem much worse.”

New way of doing things

This ESA deal also shows that it is adopting a similar path that NASA, and more recently ISRO, took by incorporating the commercial players to design, build and operate a mission while getting the necessary funds from the government space agency. With the upcoming debris return mission, ESA has signed an end-to-end service contract with ClearSpace instead of developing its own spacecraft and all the other instruments needed for the mission.

According to a press release, ESA has purchased "the initial mission" and will contribute their expertise as part of the Active Debris Removal/In-Orbit Servicing project (ADRIOS) within ESA’s Space Safety Programme. However, the startup will have to raise their own funds for the "remainder of the mission cost" through other investors.

They will also get help from other companies from Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Romania.

Luisa Innocenti, Head of ESA’s Clean Space Office, said, “The plan is that this pioneering capture forms the foundation of a recurring business case, not just for debris removal by responsible space actors around the globe, but also for in-orbit servicing: these same technologies will also enable in-orbit refuelling and servicing of satellites, extending their working life. Eventually, we envisage this trend extending into in-orbit assembly, manufacturing, and recycling.”

With inputs from the Associated Press


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