Work has started on the first satellite that can capture and de-orbit space debris.
The ClearSpace-1 mission, backed by the European Space Agency (ESA), is led by Swiss startup ClearSPace and includes eight countries including the UK, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden. Microsoft is also providing support through its Global Social Entrepreneurship program, and ClearSpace is still looking for additional sponsors for the mission.
The consortium’s first task will be to capture part of the upper stage of the Vega rocket – which ESA has left in 2013 and is currently orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 660km – and ensure it re-enters the atmosphere in a controlled manner. The mission is scheduled for launch in 2025.
The launch of thousands of low cost satellites for low earth orbit (LEO) constellations from SpaceX and OneWeb over the next decade will also potentially be at risk from the space debris and also create more debris. This makes the mission vital for space technology development.
“We launched a call for tenders, and more than 50 companies from across Europe applied,” says Luc Piguet, CEO of ClearSpace and an EPFL alumnus with an Electrical Engineering degree. “We selected around 20 partners from all of the participating countries, including four companies here in Switzerland, as well as EPFL, the Vaud School of Management and Engineering (HEIG-VD) and the University of Bern’s Astronomical Institute (AIUB).”
The team has until March 2021 to design the satellite, plan the mission and define all the sub-systems.
ClearSpace spun out of a long-term project that began in 2012 at the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) in Lausanne to develop technologies to capture and deorbit obsolete space objects such as out-of-use satellites, rocket stages, parts of solar panels, and loose nuts and bolts. These orbit at a speed of 28,000 km/h, making them dangerous projectiles for working satellites and astronauts at the international space station.