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The ESA Starts a New Commercial Sector in Space: Removing Space Debris

Long-time Slashdot reader SonicSpike brings some big news from outer space. European Space Agency announced this week that they’re signing “a €86 million ($102 million USD) contract with an industrial team led by the Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA to purchase a unique service: the first removal of an item of space debris from orbit” in the year 2025.

“With this contract signature, a critical milestone for establishing a new commercial sector in space will be achieved…”
In almost 60 years of space activities, more than 5,550 launches have resulted in some 42,000 tracked objects in orbit, of which about 23,000 remain in space and are regularly tracked. With today’s annual launch rates averaging nearly 100, and with break-ups continuing to occur at average historical rates of four to five per year, the number of debris objects in space will steadily increase. ClearSpace-1 will demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight…
This is the right time for such a mission…” says Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace.

[I]n 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….” 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…”

“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.

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