European Space Agency inks deal to deploy massive space pincers to clean up orbit

Apparently, “cleaning space is no longer optional.”

Catching a ride into space, satellite-style

The European Space Agency (ESA) has inked a deal with ClearSpace SA to clean up orbit with craft equipped with pincers designed to grab space junk. 

As space agencies and private companies go beyond research and start exploring the potential of commercial space and tourism, the space 'junk' we are accumulating will only grow.

This is a severe issue, considering the smallest satellite or piece of defunct technology zooming around at thousands of meters per second, if it collides with craft or other objects, can cause massive damage that also sends additional debris into space. 

To tackle the problem, the ESA has signed an €86 million contract with startup ClearSpace to fund and launch debris-removal missions. 

Due to launch in 2025, the first active debris removal mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, will propel a craft into space equipped with pincers able to capture satellites. In this test, the ESA says that ClearSpace craft will "rendezvous, capture and bring down for reentry a Vespa payload adapter."

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ClearSpace

The adapter, a leftover from a 2013 mission, has a mass of 112kg and is roughly the size of a small satellite. 

"Cleaning space is no longer optional," ClearSpace says in its mission statement. "Removing human-made space debris has become necessary and is our responsibility to ensure that tomorrow's generations can continue benefiting from space infrastructures and exploration."

ClearSpace was selected out of 12 candidates in 2019 by the ESA to develop a commercial debris removal solution for space. 

The ESA is only partially funding the mission and the agency intends to raise the rest of the mission cost from commercial investors interested in the technology. 

See also: Intel sends AI to space in launch of a satellite the size of a cereal box

According to the ESA's latest Space Environment report, there are over 25,000 objects in space -- including satellites and various hunks of debris -- and rocket bodies, upper stages leftover from launches, and malfunctioning satellites that can't be deorbited are forms of space junk causing the most concern. 

The majority of objects on the list were launched before 2000 and modern space junk mitigation guidelines were adopted by space agencies. 

In October, IBM revealed a separate project designed to tackle the emerging problem of space junk. A new open source venture between the tech giant and Dr. Moriba Jah at the University of Texas at Austin is focused on predicting where space objects are in orbit, and where they are likely to go. 

By accurately predicting future orbit positions through the creation of machine learning (ML)-based algorithms, this could help companies such as ClearSpace track junk and clean up orbit more effectively. 

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