ESA Eyes Space Debris Removal with ClearSpace-1
December 10, 2019
will be the first space mission to remove an item of debris from orbit,
planned for launch in 2025. The 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.
Following a competitive process, a consortium led by Swiss startup
ClearSpace – a spin-off company established by an experienced team of
space debris researchers based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de
Lausanne (EPFL) research institute – will be invited to submit their
final proposal, before starting the project next March.
“This is the right time for such a mission,” says Luc Piguet, founder
and CEO of ClearSpace. “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.”
At Space19+, ESA’s Ministerial Council, which took place in Seville,
Spain, at the end of November, ministers agreed to place a service
contract with a commercial provider for the safe removal of an inactive
ESA-owned object from low-Earth orbit.
Supported within ESA’s new Space Safety programme, the aim is to
contribute actively to cleaning up space, while also 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,” says 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,”
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.”
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.”
The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload
Adapter) upper stage left in an approximately 800 km by 660 km altitude
orbit after the second flight of ESA’s Vega launcher back in 2013. With
a mass of 100 kg, the Vespa is close in size to a small satellite, while
its relatively simple shape and sturdy construction make it a suitable
first goal, before progressing to larger, more challenging captures by
follow-up missions – eventually including multi-object capture.
The ClearSpace-1 ‘chaser’ will be launched into a lower 500-km 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. The combined chaser plus Vespa will then be deorbited to
burn up in the atmosphere.