ESA (European Space Agency) signs service contract with ClearSpace SA to carry out the first mission to remove space debris in orbit in 2025
Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA has signed last week a service contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) worth 86.2 million euros to remove orbital debris. This mission, named ClearSpace-1, will see the first debris removed by 2025.
ClearSpace SA — a spin-off of EPFL, created in 2018 by space debris experts — was selected out of twelve other candidates to develop ClearSpace-1, an innovative service to remove space debris from orbit. ClearSpace-1 aims to develop sustainable technology to clean space as well as provide other services in orbit to support a new sustainable space economy.
“We are delighted that ESA has put their faith in us. We share the same clear vision of safer, more sustainable space for all, that is our goal,” says Luc Piguet, co-founder and CEO of ClearSpace. “The way space has been used until now has led to a situation where over 5,000 satellites and out-of-control rocket stages are in orbit compared to only 2,700 working satellites. In-orbit services are not only a natural part of future space operations, they will also ensure the development of a thriving space economy.”
Over the past ten years, the number of satellites launched every year has increased tenfold to over 600 a year. At the same time, the rising amount of debris in space is a growing threat to the future and safety of space activity. Over 23,000 items of debris closely tracked.
“Drawing on its experts, engineers, researchers and network of industry specialists throughout the world, ClearSpace is building technology that will enable space debris to be removed safely and sustainably. It has put together its team of subcontractors and has already started design and testing work. Over the next few years, advanced technology will be developed and integrated in the spacecraft to be launched in early 2025,” explains Muriel Richard-Noca, co-founder and head engineer at ClearSpace.
First autonomous mission to remove space debris set for 2025
ClearSpace-1’s mission is to develop a robot-like spacecraft with four articulated arms which will ultimately enable space debris to be removed safely. ClearSpace-1’s first task scheduled for 2025 after launching from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana, will be to bring down the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) left by the Vega rocket placed in orbit in 2013, the size of a 112 kg satellite. With its articulated arms, the robot will remove Vespa and move it closer to the earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up and disintegrate.
ClearSpace-1 is part of ESA’s ADRIOS programme to develop in-orbit services for satellites such as refueling, repairs and orbital manoeuvres.
The Swiss start-up will need to draw on its network of sponsors and contributors to help fund this 14-million-euro project, representing 14% of the total project cost which stands at circa 100 million euros to which ESA contributes 86 million euros. This investment will create high added-value employment locally and launch a new in-orbit cleaning market which is set to thrive in the years to come.
ClearSpace, a venture harnessing industry and research talent for space
ClearSpace is in charge of Research & Development, designing and building the spacecraft with the help of its industry partners.
Four companies will provide ClearSpace SA with systems engineering expertise:
- Deimos Portugal and UK will be responsible for the navigation and guidance systems.
- Airbus in Germany will be in charge of avionic assembly based on Airbus’s flexible LEO platform (FLP2), adapted for robots.
- OHB-Sweden will design and manufacture the propulsion system which will give the space robot the maneuverability it requires. OHB-Sweden is also foreseen to be in charge of final integration of the satellite on their premises and all related tests.
- APCO-Technologies in Switzerland will offer its expertise in satellite structure and thermal control. It will be responsible for designing, developing and testing the systems required to ensure the robot survives the launch and subsequent space environment.
- Satellite Applications Catapult is an essential partner for setting up the operations centre. It will be joined by several British companies, currently being assessed, to develop, test and approve the mission software on the ground.
A group of Swiss industry sponsors including RUAG Space, Syderal Swiss Micro-Cameras & Space Exploration and nanoSPACE will also contribute to the project in their respective fields. They will be joined by cutting-edge space industry researchers and academics such as EPFL, scientists at the HEIG-VD (Vaud School of Management and Engineering) and the AIUB (University of Bern Astronomy Institute).
« Space debris and our current use of space, especially in low earth orbit, is a growing risk for both manned spacecraft and operational satellites. The time for action is now: we need to adopt space traffic management based on sustainability; we need to be able to de-orbit satellites that break down, and strictly limit the lifetime of low earth orbit satellites, especially those in constellations. It will no longer be acceptable in the future to leave upper stages of launchers in orbit, and those already in orbit today should be eliminated as far as possible. » Claude Nicollier, ESA/NASA astronaut and Chairman of ClearSpace’s advisory board
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