KEY POINTS

  • European Space Agency or ESA commissioned ClearSpace to deorbit a heavy part of the Vega rocket.
  • ClearSpace will lead a consortium of European companies to develop the spacecraft.
  • The ClearSpace-1 mission is set to launch in 2025.

Cleaning up space debris is an activity that a lot of companies overlook -- it's not as sexy as spearheading 5G or aging fine wine in zero gravity. But outer space junk is a serious issue that could obstruct further successful launches, which is why the European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned ClearSpace to handle a particular outer space cleaning task.

ESA tasked the Swiss startup to deorbit a heavy part of the Vega rocket that was left in orbit back in 2013. The debris that needs to be cleared out is a 100-kilogram Vesa payload adapter that was detached from the Arianespace Vega.

The entire mission classified as ClearSpace-1, which will handle that one particular junk removal task, is estimated to cost 117 million euros ($129 million), according to spokesperson Erika Verbelen. It's set to launch in 2025. And the Swiss company is in charge of the consortium of European companies that will develop the spacecraft that will be equipped with robotic arms to drag the object back to Earth.

"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 Woerner said in a news release. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."

Another company that shares the same goal of ridding orbit of zombie satellites and other space debris is Japanese startup Astroscale. CEO Nobu Okada, who spoke with Tim Romero in Disrupting Japan back in October, compared his company's role to the AAA.

Okada also believes that removing objects in space while they are still large should be the priority as it gets more difficult to deorbit smaller fragments.

"We already reached that threshold, so it is kind of a consensus among the space industries that we should remove large objects now before they get smaller," said Nobu.

Nobu also noted why governments and some companies couldn't tackle the space junk issue right away, and that's due to the high amount of capital involved as one large object would require $200 million to $500 million -- which is roughly the same with ClearSpace-1.

Europe's first Vega rocket lifts off from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana, February 13, 2012. The Vega rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Monday in an inaugural flight aimed at giving Europe a vehicle for Europe's first Vega rocket lifts off from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana, February 13, 2012. The Vega rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Monday in an inaugural flight aimed at giving Europe a vehicle for scientific satellite missions. The rocket took off from the European Space Agency's launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America at 7.00 a.m. (1000 GMT), with nine scientific satellites on board. Photo: Reuters