Take a 100-kilogram piece of space junk and disintegrate it into the atmosphere. Easy? The ESA pilot project still under development, Clearspace-1, is aimed at a first ever task: cleaning up space debris. The mission will be launched in 2025 and aims to wipe out the thousands of objects in orbit, a pile of space waste that surrounds the Earth.
Even if it’s hard to believe, it’s possible that the largest garbage dump on Earth could be in space. In the last 60 years, thousands of tonnes of garbage have accumulated around the Earth. In low Earth orbit, up to about 2,000 kilometres of altitude, we can find a little bit of everything: more than 3,000 satellites no longer functioning and tens of millions of smaller pieces of debris (the estimate is about 750,000 smaller fragments). Each object moves at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour (they orbit the Earth at an average speed of 20,000 kilometres per hour). When two of these large pieces collide, they fragment into more space waste, turning into small, dangerous bullets that could seriously damage satellites and spacecrafts. So unless a clean-up operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will increase as more and more satellites are launched into orbit.
That is why the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a plan to tackle this growing problem through the Clearspace-1 mission, in addition with a Swiss startup called Clearspace in partnership with ESA.
Getting to Vespa
The main target of Clearspace-1 will be a piece of waste called Vespa, which was left in orbit about 800 km above Earth by ESA launcher Vega in 2013. It’s the size of a small satellite and weighs 100 kilos. Due to its shape and its sturdy construction, it makes it a very suitable piece for spatial testing. It is a relatively light and easy to capture lens, and it is unlikely that when the spacecraft catches it, it will fragment. Vespa will be caught with four robotic arms that, once in its possession, it will drag the debris out of Earth’s orbit, so both the robot and the waste will end up burning in the atmosphere.
Since this is a suicide mission for the robot, ideally, if everything goes as planned,it will create a permanent cleaning robot that can eject space debris into the atmosphere without having to part with the ship itself during each cleaning operation. It’s not profitable, of course, however the objective is to prove if the concept works.
The ultimate goal is to create a spacecraft that can be propelled and directed in low orbit with a "high level of autonomy,'' according to the startup that is in charge of designing the machine.
"The problem of space debris is more pressing than ever. In the coming years, the number of satellites will increase in magnitude, with multiple mega constellations of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit," explains Luc Piguet, CEO of Clearspace.
Creating a network of waste collectors for these satellites involves many challenges. After all, powering a spaceship still costs a lot of money, and although scientists have been exploring cheaper options for many years, nothing has borne fruit yet.
The Clearspace mission will cost €117 million.
Is there any competition?
There is another Tokyo-based company called Astroscale that could overtake Clearspace. It plans to launch its first demonstrations in 2020, but whether it can be profitable or not is another matter. Other nations and agencies are investigating other methods of garbage disposal, including the deployment of small networks and the use of satellite-mounted lasers to launch fragments of space debris into the atmosphere. Looks like the space waste business is taking off.