ESA hires private company to remove space junk

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Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency has hired the private company ClearSpace to fly an unmanned mission aimed at de-orbiting a large no-longer-needed launch component of its Vega rocket.

The European Space Agency signed a debris-removal contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace tasking the company with deorbiting a substantial piece of a Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013.

The mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, is slated to launch in 2025 to capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram Vespa payload adapter an Arianespace Vega left in orbit after deploying ESA’s Proba-V remote-sensing satellite.

ClearSpace will lead a consortium of European companies in building a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture debris and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere.

The real importance of this contract is its nature. ESA is not taking the lead in designing or building the robot to do this work. Instead, it is acting merely as a customer, hiring ClearSpace to develop and build it. Afterward the robot design will belong to ClearSpace, which will then be able to sell that design for further space junk removal contracts.

[Luc Piguet, co-founder and chief executive of ClearSpace] said that while this first mission will destroy both the debris and the servicer spacecraft, future plans call for servicers that could deorbit multiple objects without also destroying themselves.

It seems that the ESA is following the recommendations I put forth in Capitalism in space, shifting power and ownership of its space missions from the agency to the private sector. This is excellent news.


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  • MDN

    With the trend to smaller satellites this could perhaps be a market opportunity for SpaceX. My logic here is that maybe they could start lofting 1 or more ClearSpace type de-orbiting payloads along with their commercial launches on each Falcon 9 since that platform is becoming overkill for a lot of payloads. But presuming the ClearSpace platform is reasonably small this would be an ideal Buddy payload I would bet.

    And, with SpaceX’s soon-to-be-proven long duration coast/refire capability they may be able to engineer in some additional delta-V flexibility to make them a preferred platform for this task, able to reach more orbital intercepts than others on any given mission.

    There is a bunch of stuff up their that we need to start cleaning up, and a flexible platform like this could presumably be well positioned to build an on-going commercial income stream from starting to clear it out in a systematic way.

  • Edward

    SpaceX already has this covered. They have reduced prices and increased flight opportunities for piggy-backing small satellites.

    There is also a new smallsat launch industry that is available to cover orbits not available by piggy-back opportunities.

    What seems to amaze most observers is that space debris removal might become commercially successful. After all, the mess is vast and cleanup expense must be enormous, so who would pay?
    When I was with NASA, debris was a concern but many people didn’t believe it was possible to have a viable commercial enterprise focused on debris removal.

    From the article that Robert linked: “ESA funding requires the mission launch on a European rocket.” If a company can make a profit using a throw-away launch vehicle, then it should do even better using a reusable launch vehicle.

    As the price to orbit continues to fall, and as refueling capabilities increase, I suspect that this new janitorial industry will bloom until most of the debris has been eliminated.

    To emphasize Robert’s final comment in his post, it is notable that neither of the companies mentioned in my second link are American. This shows us that commercialization of the space industry is international.

    Since I have already two links in this comment, requiring moderation before it is posted, I might as well include a third link on a tangential topic. Dylan Taylor gives a view of the next 50 years in space, and it is increasingly commercial:
    While space exploration was popularized by the world’s government space programs, innovative events and breakthroughs won’t come through the incremental funding of government space agencies, but instead through pioneering private space companies.

    According to Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who ran NASA’s Ames Research Center, 75% of the global space enterprise is already commercial, including satellites belonging to the likes of SiriusXM radio and DirecTV. It’s the human component that will take precedence in the nearest decades — first, through the likes of space tourism and observation.

    Similar to the economic forces that explored the American West, they will open up space to the many, even if they start with just the few.

    “Pioneering private space companies” such as Bigelow, Blue Origin, ClearSpace, and SpaceX. These companies, among others, are being innovative and trying new things, dramatically changing the way we think about space. With enough successful innovations, we should see space open up quite a bit in the future and bring back to us much more than just weather forecasts and communications.

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