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 (ISS).
Decades’ worth of our junk is cluttering up Earth’s orbit, posing a threat to spaceflight and the satellites we rely on for weather reports, air travel and global communications.
“We have approximately more than one million of pieces, smaller pieces, one centimetre or something like that, flying around the Earth,” says ESA director general Jan Woerner, during a media roundtable.
“So therefore, this is a very special issue in space, and as space is now an infrastructure, we have to keep our infrastructure clean.”
Experts warn the problem could get worse as private companies such as SpaceX, Google and Arlington, Virginia-based OneWeb send a flurry of new satellites into space over the coming years.
The nightmare scenario would be an ever-growing cascade of collisions resulting in what’s called a Kessler syndrome – named after the NASA scientist who first warned about it four decades ago – that could render near-Earth orbits unusable to future generations.
“There are people like Elon Musk wanting to launch thousands of satellites as part of a bigger constellation,” says ESA director of operations Rolf Densing.
“So it could well happen that in a matter of no time, the population of satellites in orbits will multiply, and we need to find ways and means to cope with it.”
The European Space Agency says the deal with Swiss startup ClearSpace SA will lead to the “first active debris removal mission” in 2025, in which a custom-made spacecraft will capture and bring down part of a rocket once used to deliver a satellite into orbit.
The object being removed from orbit is a so-called Vespa payload adapter that was used to hold and then release a satellite in 2013. It weighs about 112 kilograms (247 pounds).
ClearSpace SA co-founder Muriel Richard-Noca says they chose to use a “tentacle” like method as a it was the “safest way of going”.
“If you throw a net, and the net misses your target, it’s too bad, you would have to have a second net and try again. But then you would have to capture not only the net that you launched, but also the target. So, it becomes complicated,” she says.
“Here with the tentacle, if we see that there is a problem, we start going into the capture. We see there is a problem, we can go back, rehearse the whole and verify, and rehearse the whole procedure.”
In 2025, ClearSpace-1, as it’s known, will rendezvous, capture and take down the Vespa payload adapter for re-entry.
ClearSpace SA CEO Luc Piguet says they hope to expand such operations in the future to include multi object removal, even servicing and refueling.
“When we look toward the future, what we can see already today is that there’s more than 5,000 non-functional objects in orbit, which essentially are, if you want, clients that need some sort of service. And every year we add 74 new objects to this to this list,” he says.
“So, clearly for us, the idea is to bring this cost down, to make services in orbit affordable, and to start serving for all those assets that are up there in the future, constellations that are in the in the process of being launched today.”