Huge sonic booms February 13, 2009caused many Americans to call Kentucky’s emergency services—but the noise was actually caused by two Russian satellites colliding in space. The impact hurled more than two thousand unstoppable space junk into orbit. This was the decisive moment when the European Space Agency (ESA) felt compelled to take action and find a way to solve the problem.
There are currently more than 32,000 tracked pieces of garbage in space and about 130 million other orbiting objects. The good news is that the Swiss initiative Open areaOwns a London-based UK subsidiary in partnership with ESA.
ESA commissioned the Clearspace-1 project in 2020 as part of a €86 million contract described as the “first active debris removal mission”. The first mission of Clearspace-1, scheduled for 2026, will take off orbit by capturing the top of a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from the Vega rocket launched in 2013 with four robotic arms. This is an ambitious but extremely exciting project, and it has become more urgent over time.
The idea is to prove to the world that this concept is possible and then work to get the remaining defunct satellites out of orbit. These not only pollute the environment, but can also cause catastrophic collisions.
“We’ve been working on the task of removing objects for the past 10 years,” said Luisa Innocenti, head of ESA’s Clean Space initiative. “We developed concepts and technologies. The thing is, we need to put all this together in flight to show everyone that it works. The Clearspace-1 mission is essential to show the world we can remove the debris.”
A successful mission outcome is crucial because in the next three years more satellites More will be released – more than 1,700 per year – than in the last 60 years. The long-term goal – a “zero net zero pollution” policy for space by 2030 – is to be able to remove satellites as soon as they’re done. About 14,710 satellites have been launched into orbit so far, 9,780 are still in space, but only 7,100 are operational.
The problem also affects space missions. NASA’s spacewalk outside the International Space Station last month was delayed for the following reasons: Russian wreck flew dangerously close. Instead, emergency maneuvers were made to avoid danger.
“Space sustainability and resilient operations are a challenge on a global scale – now is the time to develop capabilities that will make our space operations more sustainable and affordable,” said ClearSpace CEO and co-founder Luc Piguet. “We need to ambitiously scale up space activities while preserving this precious environment for future generations.”