The European Space Agency is launching a four-armed debris-removal robot on a mission to clean up the space around Earth.
In low Earth orbit, more than 3,000 defunct satellites and tens of millions of smaller pieces of debris clatter around the atmosphere. They move at tens of thousands of miles per hour and can critically damage satellites and spacecraft. Sometimes, these pieces of debris crash into each other and shatter into yet more junk.
So, the problem is pretty serious and the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to do something about it.
ESA has just signed a debris-removal contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace. The plan is to capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram piece of junk called Vespa, which ESA’s Vega launcher deposited about 500 miles (800 km) above Earth in 2013.
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The four-armed robot will grasp the defunct satellite in its clutches, hug the object close, then finally drag it into Earth’s atmosphere, destroying both devices.
“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,” ESA Director General Jan Woerner said in a news release. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”
Launch for the mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, is planned for 2025 and the project is due to start in March. The spacecraft will launch to a 500km orbit for commissioning before heading to VESPA for rendezvous and a destructive de-orbit.
ESA estimates the total mission will cost 117 million euros ($129 million) to complete, according to spokesperson Erika Verbelen.
“The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before,” Luc Piguet, founder, and CEO of ClearSpace, the Swiss junk-removal startup partnering with ESA on the mission, said in the statement. “Today, we have nearly 2,000 live satellites in space and more than 3,000 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.”
If the project goes well it will pave the way for the new regime of space-debris cleanup.