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Safety & Security

N° 23–2019: ESA commissions world’s first space debris removal

9 December 2019

ClearSpace-1 will be the first space mission to remove an item of debris from orbit, planned for launch in 2025. The mission is being procured as a service contract with a start-up-led commercial consortium, to help establish a new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal.

Following a competitive process, a consortium led by Swiss startup ClearSpace – a spin-off company established by an experienced team of space debris researchers based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute – will be invited to submit their final proposal, before starting the project next March.

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

“And in the coming years the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit to deliver wide-coverage, low-latency telecommunications and monitoring services. The need is clear for a ‘tow truck’ to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region.”

At Space19+, ESA’s Ministerial Council, which took place in Seville, Spain, at the end of November, ministers agreed to place a service contract with a commercial provider for the safe removal of an inactive ESA-owned object from low-Earth orbit.

Supported within ESA’s new Space Safety programme, the aim is to contribute actively to cleaning up space, while also demonstrating the technologies needed for debris removal.

“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,” says ESA Director General Jan Wörner.

“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.”

“Even if all space launches were halted tomorrow, projections show that the overall orbital debris population will continue to grow, as collisions between items generate fresh debris in a cascade effect,” says Luisa Innocenti, heading ESA’s Clean Space initiative. “We need to develop technologies to avoid creating new debris and removing the debris already up there.”

“NASA and ESA studies show that the only way to stabilise the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items. Accordingly we will be continuing our development of essential guidance, navigation and control technologies and rendezvous and capture methods through a new project called Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing – ADRIOS. The results will be applied to ClearSpace-1. This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process.”

The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage left in an approximately 800 km by 660 km altitude orbit after the second flight of ESA’s Vega launcher back in 2013. With a mass of 100 kg, the Vespa is close in size to a small satellite, while its relatively simple shape and sturdy construction make it a suitable first goal, before progressing to larger, more challenging captures by follow-up missions – eventually including multi-object capture.

The ClearSpace-1 ‘chaser’ will be launched into a lower 500-km orbit for commissioning and critical tests before being raised to the target orbit for rendezvous and capture using a quartet of robotic arms under ESA supervision. The combined chaser plus Vespa will then be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere.

Multimedia

Clear Space logo
http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2019/12/ClearSpace_logo

Artist impression, ClearSpace-1 with captured Vespa
http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2019/12/ClearSpace-1_with_captured_Vespa

Artist impression of ClearSpace-1
http://www.esa.int//ESA_Multimedia/Images/2019/12/ClearSpace-1

The publicly released images may be reproduced without fee, on the following conditions: Credit ClearSpace SA as the source of the images.
Images shall not be used in advertising or any commercial promotion, layout and copy must be submitted to ClearSpace SA beforehand for approval to: info@clearspace.today

Gif of space debris around Earth
http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2019/10/Distribution_of_space_debris_around_Earth

Video showing distribution of space debris in Earth's orbit
http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Videos/2019/02/Distribution_of_space_debris_in_orbit_around_Earth

Terms and conditions for using ESA videos:
http://www.esa.int/spaceinvideos/Terms_and_Conditions

For questions or more information related to ESA videos, please contact spaceinvideos@esa.int

About the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) provides Europe’s gateway to space.

ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

ESA has 22 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, of which 20 are Member States of the EU.

ESA has established formal cooperation with seven other Member States of the EU. Canada takes part in some ESA programmes under a Cooperation Agreement.

By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, ESA can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country. It is working in particular with the EU on implementing the Galileo and Copernicus programmes.

ESA develops the launchers, spacecraft and ground facilities needed to keep Europe at the forefront of global space activities. Today, it develops and launches satellites for Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications and astronomy, sends probes to the far reaches of the Solar System and cooperates in the human exploration of space.

Learn more about ESA at www.esa.int

For further information:

ESA Newsroom and Media Relations – Ninja Menning

Email: media@esa.int

Tel: +31 71 56 56 409