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ClearSpace-1 set to clean up space debris

The European Space Agency has selected EPFL spin-out ClearSpace to lead a space debris de-orbiting project that is planned for launch in 2025.

ClearSpace-1 mission (©2019 EPFL/J.Caillet)

The ClearSpace-1 mission is being procured as a service contract with a start-up led commercial consortium, to help establish a new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal.

In a statement, Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace said, “This is the right time for such a mission. 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.

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“And in the coming years the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit to deliver wide-coverage, low-latency telecommunications and monitoring services. The need is clear for a ‘tow truck’ to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region.

At the end of November, ESA’s Ministerial Council agreed to place a service contract with a commercial provider for the removal of an inactive ESA-owned object from low-Earth orbit. The aim is to actively contribute to cleaning up space, while demonstrating the technologies needed for debris removal.

“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,” said ESA director general Jan Wörner. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue. ESA’s Member States have given their strong support to this new mission, which also points the way forward to essential new commercial services in the future.”

“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,” said Luisa Innocenti, who heads ESA’s Clean Space initiative. “We need to develop technologies to avoid creating new debris and removing the debris already up there.

“NASA and ESA studies show that the only way to stabilise the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items. Accordingly, we will be continuing our development of essential guidance, navigation and control technologies and rendezvous and capture methods through a new project called Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing - ADRIOS. The results will be applied to ClearSpace-1. This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process.”

According to ESA, the ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage left in an approximately 800km by 660km altitude orbit after the second flight of ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. With a mass of 100kg, Vespa is close in size to a small satellite, while its relatively simple shape and sturdy construction make it a suitable first target before moving onto larger, more challenging objects in missions that will eventually include multi-object capture.

The so-called ClearSpace-1 ‘chaser’ will be launched into a lower 500km orbit for commissioning and 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.