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article imageSwiss startup chosen by ESA for space debris cleanup mission

By Karen Graham     Dec 13, 2019 in Technology
A self-destructing robot will be sent into orbit on the world's first space cleanup mission, European scientists announced Monday, a fresh approach to fixing up the galaxy's junk graveyard.
After going through a competitive process, a consortium led by Swiss startup ClearSpace – a spin-off company based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute - has been invited to submit their final proposal, before starting the project next March, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
The ESA points out our orbit is filled with garbage, including chunks of dead satellites, discarded rockets, and paint flecks that have fallen off them. The mission, named ClearSpace-1, will take the first step in tidying up this extraterrestrial wasteland. The space agency estimates there are about 170 million pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth.
“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,” says ESA Director General Jan Wörner in the press release. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
Distribution of space debris around Earth
Distribution of space debris around Earth
Luisa Innocenti, heading ESA’s Clean Space initiative said: “Even if all space launches were halted tomorrow, projections show that the overall orbital debris population will continue to grow, as collisions between items generate fresh debris in a cascade effect. We need to develop technologies to avoid creating new debris and removing the debris already up there."
“This is the right time for such a mission,” says Luc Piguet, founder, and CEO of ClearSpace. “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.
The technologies needed for active removal of space debris
Studies done by both NASA and the ESA have shown that the only way to stabilize the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items. To this end, the ESA has created a new project, focusing on the development of essential guidance, navigation, and control technologies and rendezvous and capture methods.
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite was released from the International Space Station on June 20  2018. The p...
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite was released from the International Space Station on June 20, 2018. The project has already carried out three experiments.
The project is called Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing – ADRIOS. The outcome is that R&D will be applied to the CleanSpace-1 mission. " This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process," says the ESA.
And working to develop the technologies for removing space debris is something that has already been fruitful. For example, Japanese scientists are now developing a type of satellite that uses magnets to catch and destroy the debris, as was reported in Digital Journal in February this year.
Also in February, a British-led mission successfully tested a harpoon that's designed to spear space junk and capture it in orbit for the first time. Airbus carried out a successful experiment as part of the RemoveDebris project.
And of course, we have private space companies, like SpaceX and Blue Orion, among others, that have developed reusable rocket boosters. SpaceX has gone one step further and is designing its satellites to intentionally plunge back toward Earth at the end of their lives instead of drifting in orbit, reports CTV News Canada.
This is ELSA-d Servicer. It carries the rendezvous and magnetic capture mechanisms.
This is ELSA-d Servicer. It carries the rendezvous and magnetic capture mechanisms.
ClearSpace-1 mission
The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage left in orbit back in 2013. With a mass of 100 kilograms, the Vespa is close in size to a small satellite, while its relatively simple shape and sturdy construction make it a suitable first goal.
The ClearSpace-1 ‘chaser’ will be launched into a lower 500-km orbit for commissioning and critical tests before being raised to the target orbit for rendezvous and capture using a quartet of robotic arms under ESA supervision. The combined chaser plus Vespa will then be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere.
CNN points out the ESA ClearSpace mission has a budget of about 100 million euros ($111 million). The UK's harpoon-like device tested in February cost 15 million euros ($17 million). While many people think the cost of removing one piece of space junk at $15 million a whack is an exorbitant price to pay - it also shows that we still have a long way to go in cleaning up our backyard.
More about Space debris, Esa, ClearSpace1, Robotics, startup company
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