Space

World-first space debris removal mission to launch in 2025

World-first space debris remov...
Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1
Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1
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Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1
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Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1
Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1 capturing VESPA
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Artist's concept of ClearSpace-1 capturing VESPA
Distribution of space debris greater than 1 mm in size around the Earth
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Distribution of space debris greater than 1 mm in size around the Earth
ClearSpace-1 will target the conical upper part of the payload adapter that delivered Proba-V into orbit
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ClearSpace-1 will target the conical upper part of the payload adapter that delivered Proba-V into orbit
ClearSpace-1 is designed to capture space debris using four robotic arms
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ClearSpace-1 is designed to capture space debris using four robotic arms
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ESA has commissioned the world's first mission to recover a piece of space debris in orbit. At the end of November, the space agency's Ministerial Council consortium awarded a service contract to a consortium led by Swiss startup ClearSpace. The ClearSpace-1 mission set to launch in 2025 will intercept and collect a rocket upper stage from a previous ESA mission as part of a project to jump-start the market for the servicing and disposal of orbiting payloads.

Space debris is a major problem with thousands of active and inactive satellites, rocket stages, and general rubbish ranging in size down to paint flecks circling the Earth at hypersonic speeds. With mega-constellations of new satellites planned to be placed in already crowded orbital regions, the threat of collisions that could lead to a catastrophic cascade of destruction increases. Even today, it's recognized that the only way to decrease the threat is by actively removing defunct satellites and other debris from orbit.

Part of ESA's Space Safety program, ClearSpace-1 is tasked with demonstrating the technology that could be developed for a full program of debris clean up. Under international law, satellites are the property and responsibility of those who sent them up, so the test target is ESA's Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (VESPA) upper stage. This was sent into space in 2013 for the second flight of the agency's Vega launcher and is presently in an 800 by 660 km (500 by 410 mi) altitude orbit. It was selected because it weighs only 100 kg (220 lb) and has a simple shape and sturdy construction.

ClearSpace-1 will target the conical upper part of the payload adapter that delivered Proba-V into orbit
ClearSpace-1 will target the conical upper part of the payload adapter that delivered Proba-V into orbit

When ClearSpace-1 launches, it will be put into a 500-km (310-mi) orbit. After testing and commissioning, it will then rendezvous with VESPA, where it will use four robotic arms to capture the target before returning with its prize to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. If the mission is a success, it will pave the way for more ambitious tests involving the capture of multiple pieces of debris.

“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,” says Luisa Innocenti, heading 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 stabilize 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."

The ClearSpace-1 debris capture technique is shown in the animation below.

ClearSPace-1 mission animation

Source: ESA

View gallery - 5 images
6 comments
Jeremy Plaiss
This seems a bit foolish to me. A significant portion of the global population is on board with exploring beyond our planet. We will need resources in the future. Why not try to corral this material into a known and controlled location, and NOT spend more money to literally flame it out into our atmosphere? Considerable costs have been expended to get these materials into orbit, and even if we aren't able to efficiently harvest and manipulate said material now, what does waiting a little do to us in the long run?
Educate me.
Aross
So the solution is to send up more junk to capture the junk that is already there and then send it down to burn up in the atmosphere. I assume that will gasify everything creating more pollution in the air. It would be better to gather up and re-use this material in space to augment the ISS or the send it back down to earth in shuttle to be properly disposed of or re-used..
Expanded Viewpoint
Oh PUULLLEEEZE now! Are they kidding here?!?! They're really going to waste all of that infrastructure to get rid of just one tiny little old satellite? Why not capture it with a scoop, like what they use in Jai Alai, and then either fling it towards or away from Earth? That would make way more sense because you could have the capture module return to and dock with the mother ship to have its propellant tanks refilled and then sent out again for the next piece of trash.
As for the paint flecks and other small items, maybe we can use some kind of foam that will stay soft and gooey in space and can act like a sheet of fly paper until it's time to de-orbit the whole mass/mess.
Douglas Rogers
Future obsolete satellites could be moved to a Lagrange point by solar sail and be reused.
Steve Armstrong
I'm going to have to agree with the previous commenters here. Trashing the trash by burning it in our atmosphere just creates more pollution in our atmosphere. Toss it at the moon if you have to toss it anywhere! Let it land there unburnt and it can be farmed for resources by future lunar stations!
ljaques
I agree with Jeremy and Douglas. Fill up the lagrange points and reuse the materials later. Almost everything on a satellite is highly refined. Why waste all that?