European Space Agency announces contract for removal of orbital debris

27th November 2020 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The European Space Agency (ESA) is contracting Swiss startup company ClearSpace to remove a piece of space debris from orbit, in a deal worth €86-million. It will be both the first ever mission to remove orbiting space debris and the first time ESA has contracted a private-sector company to provide a complete end-to-end mission service. Previously, the agency always defined the spacecraft it would use (although they would be built by industry) and operated them itself.

Under the contract, ClearSpace will launch its first mission, ClearSpace-1, in 2025. This spacecraft will rendezvous with, then capture and bring down, a Vespa payload adapter. This will be a technology demonstration mission, as the Vespa (the name is an acronym for Vega [rocket] secondary payload adapter) is actually in a ‘disposal’ orbit. That is, it will, if left alone, eventually fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.

The Vespa was chosen as the target because, with a mass of 112 kg, it was similar in size to a small satellite. ESA will assist ClearSpace with expertise and the contract marks a significant step forward in the development of a commercial space sector in Europe. (Note, ESA is not part of the European Union.)

Over the past 60 years, more than 5 500 space launches put about 42 000 tracked objects in orbit; of these, 23 000 are still in orbit and are being regularly tracked. Most are debris or dead spacecraft. Nowadays, there are some 100 space launches a year, creating more and more orbital debris. The need to ensure the future sustainability of spaceflight requires that action be taken.

The ClearSpace project falls under and is supported by ESA’s Space Safety Programme, which is based in Darmstadt, Germany. It forms part of the agency’s Active Debris Removal/In-Orbit Servicing project.

ClearSpace is a company spun-off from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. It was selected after a competitive process. Although the Swiss company is the lead contractor, it is also receiving support from other enterprises in Switzerland, and in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and the UK.