The European Space Agency (ESA) chose a Swiss startup to lead what will be the world’s first mission to clean up a large amount of space debris from the orbit.
ClearSpace, a spinout (disincorporation) of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, will lead the project to build a spacecraft with robotic arms, which will take the redundant upper stage of an ESA rocket that orbits at an altitude of about 800 kilometers.
The 100 kilogram metal object will be sent at full speed to Earth, so that it can burn without causing damage to the upper atmosphere.
More than a dozen consortia, including the main aerospace companies, competed for the ESA’s 100 million euro space debris disposal mission.
Other capture ideas included firing a harpoon into space debris and throwing a net around it.
But ESA in the end decided that ClearSpace’s plan to trap garbage with four robotic arms was more likely to meet the agency’s mission criteria it will launch in 2025 and remove a 100 kilogram piece of waste at an affordable cost.
The chosen target is in orbit since the second flight of the ESA Vega launcher in 2013.
It has a size and weight close to that of a small satellite, with a relatively simple shape that makes it a good first target, before the later missions advance to move larger and more difficult objects, including removing more than one object during a single flight.
The orbits around the Earth are increasingly full of debris that represent a growing threat to spaceflight.
ESA estimates that there are more than 3,000 abandoned satellites and 34,000 objects of more than 10 centimeters that come from the disintegration of spacecraft.
“Imagine how dangerous it would be to sail on the high seas if all the ships lost in history were still adrift on the surface of the water,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
“That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue. ESA member states gave their strong support for this new mission, which also points the way forward to new essential business services in the future.”
Wörner said that although much has been said about the need to clear the space of rapidly growing garbage accumulation, ESA was the first agency to fund a mission to demonstrate that removal in practice.
It is necessary for others to join.
The purpose of the visit is to convince the US agency to intensify its own efforts to clear the space, perhaps through a new collaboration program with ESA, since it is considered that the more than 3 thousand abandoned satellites can represent a serious problem for the future.