Why Europe's Space Agency Is Spending $103 Million to Remove a Single Piece of Space Junk

Conceptual image of the ClearSpace-1 mission.
Conceptual image of the ClearSpace-1 mission.
Image: ESA

The European Space Agency has signed a historic deal with Swiss startup ClearSpace to remove a single item of space debris in 2025. The $103 million price tag is steep, but this mission—involving an orbiting, mouth-like net—could herald the beginning of an entirely new space industry.

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The new contract, announced late last week, is unique in that the mission will involve “the first removal of an item of space debris from orbit,” according to ESA. ClearSpace, a spin-off of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), is the commercial provider for this mission, and it will seek the help of partners in Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, and several other European countries.

The target in question is the Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (or Vespa), which has been circling in low Earth orbit (LEO) since 2013. This 247-pound (112-kilogram) payload adapter successfully dispatched a Proba-V satellite to space, but, like so many other items in LEO, it currently serves no purpose, presenting a potential hazard to functioning satellites and possibly even the International Space Station.

Archival image from 2013 showing the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) adapter in the background, with the Proba-V satellite in the foreground.
Archival image from 2013 showing the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) adapter in the background, with the Proba-V satellite in the foreground.
Image: ESA - Karim Mellab

€86 million (USD $103 million) seems like an awful lot of money to spend on the removal of a single item of space debris, but ESA is making an important investment. The technology required for the ClearSpace-1 mission, in which a spacecraft will “rendezvous, capture, and bring down” the Vespa payload adapter, will likely be leveraged in similar future missions (assuming this particular strategy will work). Ultimately, ESA is hoping to launch “a new commercial sector in space.”

The ClearSpace solution will involve a spacecraft and conical net that will “eat” the Vespa payload adapter. This will require unimaginable precision, as the objects will be traveling at speeds reaching 17,400 miles per hour (28,000 km/hr). Slight miscalculations could make the target object bounce out before the net can close or even cause a serious collision. With its cargo secured, the ClearSpace spacecraft will fall into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up on re-entry.

According to ESA, the number of debris objects currently being tracked is now at about 22,300. With each added item, the chance of a collision increases, making LEO a dangerous place for satellites and astronauts. Removing this debris “has become necessary and is our responsibility to ensure that tomorrow’s generations can continue benefiting from space infrastructures and exploration,” according to to ClearSpace, adding that ClearSpace-1 will “demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.”

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ClearSpace has its conical net, but several other companies are developing their own concepts. RemoveDEBRIS, for example, uses a harpoon to snatch wayward objects in orbit. Only time will tell which strategy works best, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that solutions are coming. The time has come for us to clean up our mess.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

DISCUSSION

With advances in rocket reusability and ion engines I could see eventually shooting up a lot of space janitors as secondary cargo for a relatively cheap price.

Too bad SPECTRE already has the market cornered.