Humanity launched the first satellite in 1957, and since then we’ve put thousands of objects in orbit with little regard for the future. Along with about 3,000 active satellites, we now have 900,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 centimeters. The results could be catastrophic if even a tiny piece of debris collided with a crewed spacecraft or merely inconvenient if it hit a satellite. In either case, that’s something you want to avoid. Cleaning up space to prevent collisions is a tall order, but the ESA has just funded a giant space claw that could show the way forward.
Most launch operators don’t usually go into a mission intended to clutter up the space around Earth. Nevertheless, defunct satellites, booster engines, and smaller bits of machinery can remain in orbit long after their useful life. Some objects will fall back to Earth naturally as their orbit decays, but the volume of space debris is still moving in the wrong direction, and space is about to get a lot more crowded with megaconstellations from SpaceX and others.
To combat the increase in space junk, the ESA has awarded a €86 million contract to Switzerland-based ClearSpace SA to run the first-ever active debris removal operation. The ESA will provide expertise and money, but ClearSpace SA will do all the engineering and design work. It will also seek additional funding for the mission from commercial investors.
The target of the ESA mission is a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter), which was left in a 400-mile-high orbit since 2013 when it helped launch a Vega rocket in 2013. The team chose this object because its orbit and composition are well understood, and it’s about the size of a small satellite.
The mission, known as ClearSpace-1, could launch as soon as 2025. The claw-shaped spacecraft will rendezvous with the Vespa debris and lock onto it with the grapplers. After that, it simply drags the object down into the atmosphere where it and the claw burn up. You would, of course, need a lot of these devices to clear Earth’s orbital traffic jam, but this is just an initial test. If ClearSpace-1 is successful, the company can design more efficient versions of the claw for capturing junk.
Only time will tell if ClearSpace’s approach to removing space junk is viable, but we will need to do something. The more cluttered space becomes, the more dangerous it is. Some scientists even worry that a chain reaction of space collisions know as the Kessler effect could render the space around Earth unusable for years or decades.
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