ESA signs contract for 1st space junk removal

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) has now signed a contract with a private company, ClearSpace SA, for the first dedicated commercial mission to remove a piece of orbiting space junk.

ESA officials signed a contract with ClearSpace on Nov 13. to complete the safe deorbiting of a payload adapter launched aboard the second flight of the Arianespace Vega rocket in 2013.

Unlike traditional ESA contracts that involve the agency procuring and coordinating the mission, ClearSpace-1 is a contract to purchase a service: the safe removal of a piece of space debris. ESA officials said they intend this mission to help establish a new commercial sector led by European industry. The 86 million euros supplied by ESA will be supplemented with an additional 24 million euros ClearSpace is raising from commercial investors. Approximately 14 million euros of the privately-raised funding will be utilized for the mission, while the remaining 10 million will be set aside for contingencies, ESA spokesperson Valeria Andreoni told SpaceNews.

First, that the ESA has decided here to shift from running the mission and to merely being the customer buying the product from a private company is magnificent news. Europe has been, like NASA was in the 2000s, very reluctant to give up its total control in the design, construction, and launch of rockets and spacecraft. That they are now mimicking NASA’s own shift in the 2010s to this private model, as I outlined in detail in Capitalism in Space, means that ESA’s bureaucracy is finally coming around to the idea of freedom, capitalism, and private enterprise. What a thing!

Second, though this mission is commercial, it isn’t really a practical economic solution to the removal of most space junk. The contract will cost $104 million, plus the additional private capital ClearSpace has raised. None of this appears to include the launch cost. Yet, it will only remove one defunct object in orbit.

Such a technology will be useful for removing specific large pieces of space junk that pose a risk should they crash to Earth. It will not be economically useful for removing the small junk in orbit that threatens other working satellites and spacecraft. For that technology to be cost effective it will need to be able to clean up many objects on a single flight.

ESA hires private company to remove space junk

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.