A year after the tarp was unveiled, ESA has now officially awarded the first contract to remove space debris from orbit. Swiss startup ClearSpace gets 86 million to collect the upper part of a Vespa rocket launched in 2013 and let it burn up in the atmosphere. By awarding the contract to a private company, the European Space Agency says it also wants to play a part in helping this service develop into a new commercial sector of the space industry. At least the orbit became more and more crowded.
More satellites, more risk
ESA presented the plans a year ago and stressed at the time how important it was to create this market. After all, the number of artificial satellites in Earth orbit is currently growing rapidly. "Imagine how dangerous ocean shipping would be if all the ships ever lost continued to drift across the oceans", ESA chief Jan Worner had explained the situation in Earth orbit at the time. Without regular removal of objects that are no longer in use, the risk of a cascade of collisions continues to increase. Such a clash was expected to significantly worsen the trummer problem and could have serious implications for space travel.
To prove that space bulkhead removal works, ClearSpace now plans to conduct the ClearSpace-1 mission in 2025. The Vespa target selected for this purpose has a mass of 112 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to a small satellite, but is of simple shape and robust construction. It orbits in a parking position at a height of about 660 to 800 kilometers. The ClearSpace satellite is to be brought to an altitude of about 500 kilometers under the supervision of ESA and from there approach the object. With its four robotic arms, it will then grab the object so that both can crash together and burn up in the atmosphere.
"The plan is that this initial removal will establish a regular business, not only for the removal of debris by responsible space actors around the world, but also for in-orbit maintenance", explains Luisa Innocenti of ESA. This benefits the space industry as a whole, adds ClearSpace founder Luc Piguet: "Our ‘tow truck’ design will be available to remove orbital debris from key orbits that could render them useless for future missions." In the future, this could remove non-cooperating objects from orbit and significantly reduce in-orbit hazards.