First orbital space debris removal to get go-ahead next month

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The European Space Agency is to sign an €86 million (US$102 million) contract with an industrial team led by the Swiss startup ClearSpace next month, giving the go-ahead to the first ever removal of an item of space debris from orbit.

ClearSpace plans to run the first active debris removal mission in 2025 and will be tasked with removing the VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage that delivered the Proba-V into satellite orbit in 2013 from an European Space Agency (ESA) Vega launcher.

The ClearSpace-1 chaser will be launched into a lower 500km 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 for the mission. The combined chaser plus Vespa will then be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere.

The 100kg VESPA, which is close in size to a small satellite with a conical shape, was left in an approximately 800 km by 660 km altitude orbit. ClearSpace plans to progress to larger, more challenging captures in follow-up missions –including multi-object capture.

The contract, which was first announced in December 2019, was awarded to ClearSpace after a competitive tender process. ESA hopes the commercial purchase of the services will help establish a new market for in-orbit servicing and debris removal.

ClearSpace is a spin-out company from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute in Switzerland. Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpacesaid, “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.

“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.”

Luisa Innocenti, head of the ESA’s Clean Space initiative said, “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 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.”

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before eventually becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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