KEY POINTS

  • The European Space Agency (ESA) takes the problem with space debris seriously

  • The ESA commissioned Swiss startup ClearSpace to conduct the first mission to remove space debris

  • The mission will target space debris that was part of an ESA-owned rocket that launched in 2013

  • ClearSpace-1 will launch in 2025, paving the way for future space debris removal missions

The aim of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Space Safety Programme is to actively contribute to the removal of space junk while demonstrating the technologies that would be required for the task. Just last November at Space 19+, the ESA’s Ministerial Council agreed to a commercial contract to remove a substantial piece of the inactive ESA-owned Vega rocket from low-Earth orbit.

Following a competitive process, Swiss startup CleanSpace will be the one to conduct what will be the first-ever mission to remove space debris from orbit.

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

As mentioned, the mission now dubbed ClearSpace-1 will target part of the rocket Vega which was left in approximately 800 km by 660 km altitude after the launch in 2013. Because of its simple shape and its size, which resembles that of a small satellite, it is a suitable target for a first mission. Upon successful completion, the next projects can move on to larger, more complex clean-up missions.

ClearSpace-1 is set to launch in 2025.

Space Debris

According to Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA's Clean Space initiative, the overall debris population in orbit will continue to grow even if all the launches would be halted immediately because debris collisions tend to create new debris. She further notes that the only way to control the orbital environment is to remove large debris.

“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,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner said. “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."

The ESA constantly monitors space debris and, as of January 2019, the agency is tracking about 22,300 space debris with a total mass of over 8,400 tons. Over 500 debris breakups, collisions, explosions and other events causing fragmentation have also been observed.

Apart from the ESA's efforts to remove space debris, Japanese startup Astroscale is also in the business of removing space debris for a competitive price.