The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it has signed an 86 million euro agreement with Swiss start-up ClearSpace. Objective: to desorb space waste so as to burn it in the atmosphere.
The problem of space debris
Imagine how dangerous it would be to navigate the high seas if all the craft ever lost in history still drifted on the water. This is the current situation in Earth orbit. ESA estimates that more than 34,000 man-made space debris more than ten centimeters above our heads. These objects, which fly through space at several thousand km / h, then pose a real threat to active satellites and other occupants of the ISS. Just last year, the International Space Station had to use its thrusters to dodge a piece of debris three times.
And it’s not over. In the years to come, the number of satellites will indeed increase as the various mega-constellations made up of hundreds, even thousands of satellites, will position themselves in low earth orbit.
A test in 2025
These waste issues are taken very seriously by the European Space Agency (ESA). With that in mind, last year, she asked several companies to come up with a solution to remove this debris. Out of a panel of more than a dozen applicants, the agency set its sights on ClearSpace, founded by members of the Federal Polytechnic in Lausanne, ultimately awarding it a contract worth 86 million euros.
By 2025, the Swiss start-up will launch its first active debris disposal mission, called ClearSpace-1, which will aim to capture and recover a payload of around 112 kilograms left in low earth orbit following the second. launch of the European Vega rocket in 2013. The idea will be to grab hold of this waste with robotic arms, then bring it back into the atmosphere where it will be burned.
“Now is the right time for such a mission. The issue of space debris is more urgent than ever. Today we have nearly 2,000 satellites active in space and more than 3,000 down, ”said Luc Piguet, Founder and CEO of ClearSpace.
Of course, 86 million euros seems like a huge amount to spend to eliminate a single item, but ESA sees it as an investment. The technology required for the ClearSpace-1 mission, if successful, will indeed be used in future similar missions. Ultimately, the European agency hopes to launch “a new commercial sector in space”.
Note that this problem of space debris is also taken seriously by other actors. In particular, we know that China is considering using lasers, while SpaceX is offering to rely on its Starship ships to de-orbit some dead rocket bodies between two missions to the Moon or to Mars.