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ESA commissions a startup to clean up space debris

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a EUR 86 million contract with an industrial team led by the Swiss startup ClearSpace SA to acquire a unique service: the first mission to orbit space debris.

In 2025, ClearSpace will launch the first active debris removal mission, ClearSpace-1, which will reach the top of a secondary Vespa payload adapter used with a Vega launch vehicle to capture it and return it to the atmosphere to haul. . Following Vegas’ second launch in 2013, this object was placed in a cemetery orbit at an approximate elevation between 801 and 664 km, which is consistent with space debris reduction guidelines.

Signing such a service contract instead of deploying and completing the entire mission represents a new way of doing business for ESA and is the first step in creating a new space business.

In addition to purchasing the equipment for this first mission, for which ClearSpace will receive the remainder of the funding from commercial investors to develop, ESA will also deploy key flight technologies developed under the Clean Space initiative under the ADRIOS project. (Active Debris Removal / In-Orbit Maintenance or Active Debris Removal / Orbit Services).

These technologies include advanced guidance, navigation and control systems, as well as visual artificial intelligence that enables the fighter satellite to safely and autonomously approach its target, and the robotic arms to perform the acquisition.

Let’s assume that all previous recordings have been made with cooperative and fully controlled objects, explains Jan Wrner, Director General of ESA. When we talk about space debris, this control is impossible by definition: it’s about drifting objects that often tumble across space.

Therefore, this initial detection and removal of a non-cooperative space object is an extremely difficult feat. Given that the total number of satellites will grow rapidly over the next decade, their regular removal will be vital to keeping debris levels under control and preventing a cascade of collisions that could significantly exacerbate the debris problem .

Luc Piguet, Founder and CEO of ClearSpace, comments: At orbital speeds, even a screw can strike with an explosive force that not even designers can consider protecting their missions. Instead, this threat must be responded to through active withdrawal. of space debris.

Our trailer design will be able to clear debris from key orbits that would otherwise be useless for future missions, eliminating increasing risks and problems for their owners and benefiting the entire space industry. Our goal is to provide affordable and sustainable in-orbit services.

Luisa Innocenti, Head of ESA’s Clean Space Office, adds: It is envisaged that this groundbreaking collection will become a fundamental and recurring commercial benchmark, not just for waste disposal by responsible space actors around the world. , but also for services in orbit: the same technologies enable the refueling and maintenance of satellites in orbit and thus extend their service life. Over time, we want this trend to spread to assembly, manufacturing and recycling in orbit.

With a mass of 112 kg, Vespa, the ClearSpace-1 target, is about the size of a small satellite. Additionally, its relatively simple shape and rugged construction make it an ideal first-time candidate before moving on to larger and more difficult surveys in later missions that will eventually include multi-object surveys.

First, the ClearSpace-1 mission will be launched into a lower 500 km orbit for commissioning and critical testing before ascending into final orbit to encounter the object and capture it with four robotic arms. everything under the supervision of ESA. After that, neither the capture rocket robot nor the Vespa will be able to dissolve into the atmosphere.

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