[Science] Europe launches for the first time a satellite-garbage collector to clean up space

Posted on December 19, 2020

Mission: pollution control in space. Europe has just signed a contract worth more than 100 million euros with the Swiss startup CleanSpace. The latter will launch, for the first time, a satellite-garbage collector to recover debris from an old European rocket. The environmental objective is also to secure space, whereas after 60 years of space activity, more than 23,000 objects revolve around the Earth.

This is a first since the start of the space conquest. The European Space Agency has just signed a contract with the Swiss startup CleanSpace. This involves removing waste from Earth orbit. This is Vespa, the upper stage of the old European Vega rocket launched in 2013 and which has been orbiting 800 km from Earth for almost 8 years.

“Space is an infrastructure that we must keep clean. We have an environmental responsibility, on Earth and in orbit,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner told an online conference. Concretely, CleanSpace’s mission will be to locate Vespa and capture it using a robot with articulated arms.

The mission turns out to be perilous. After capturing the object, the Cleanspace robot will have to bring Vespa closer to the earth’s atmosphere where it will disintegrate while burning. The first operational outing is scheduled for 2025, after a launch from the Kourou launch base in French Guiana.

Threat of collision

This first decontamination mission could be emulated while in nearly 60 years of space activity and more than 5,500 launches, approximately 23,000 objects of more than 10 centimeters orbit the Earth, adrift, forming a cloud of waste: old rockets, pieces of satellites that remained in orbit after an explosion, entire satellite at the end of its life. “The way space has been exploited so far leads to a situation where more than 5,000 satellites or uncontrollable rocket stages are in orbit for only 2,700 operating satellites.“, explains Luc Piguet, co-founder and CEO of CleanSpace.

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Gravitating at full speed (28,000 km / hour, or “Paris-Marseille in 3 minutes”), this waste represents a serious threat of collision which, not only can destroy operational satellites and their precious services (meteorology, GPS, observation of Earth …), but generates new debris, causing a chain reaction – called Kessler syndrome – “that we would be unable to stop”, explains Luisa Innocenti, head of the CleanSpace office at ESA.

Still, the cost of the operation is heavy. The total amount amounts to 100 million euros, of which 86 million are invested by the European Space Agency. The business model of CleanSpace is not yet tenable but the objective is to be able, in the future, during a mission, to destroy several annoying debris and not just one as will be the case for the Vespa mission.

Marina Fabre, @fabre_marina with AFP

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