European Space Agency Plans to Make Space Debris History!

The world’s first space cleanup isn't light-years away, it’s launching soon!

Mar 6, 2020

Thought environmental cleanups were only for this earth? Well you’re wrong! Outer space is littered with tons of debris, the result of 60 years of human forays into the unexplored universe, of which earth is just a small part. This “waste” includes old rocket parts, around 3,500 defunct satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments, some the result of collisions between larger bits of “junk”. The good news is that the European Space Agency (ESA), plans to launch the world’s first space debris collector in 2025. This is a four-armed robotic junk collector that will be the first to remove debris from orbit.

This exciting initiative to address space clutter has been christened ClearSpace-1. Its debut mission will see it go after a single, 1-kilogram piece of junk called “Vespa” that has been selected due to its simple shape and sturdy construction. These characteristics, scientists believe, make it unlikely to fragment when grabbed out of orbit by the robot’s four arms before it burns up in the atmosphere on the way down to earth.

This first mission will be run by a consortium led by a Swiss startup called ClearSpace, at an estimated cost of US$134 million. But this endeavor is timely. Unless a space cleanup happens, the ESA has declared that the chance of collisions will escalate as more satellites are sent into orbit.

ESA’s Director General, Jan Wörner, explains this pressing need to do something about all this free-floating “space litter” clearly:

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water…that is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.” He hopes that this will just be the start of a more extensive space clear-up operation.

Wörner is also calling for new laws that would compel those who launch satellites to take responsibility for removing them from orbit once they are retired from use.

Meanwhile, multiple solutions are being floated by space experts. These include an ambitious ESA goal of creating a clear-up robot capable of ejecting junk into the atmosphere before continuing to capture and “de-orbit” other pieces of space debris. Other ideas include using working satellites to prolong the life of older, active satellites, or to tow “derelict” satellites into safe disposal orbits to avoid hazardous collisions. Other scientists are in favor of the use of nets or even high-powered lasers to drive space junk down into the atmosphere.

A compelling, long-term ESA aim is to actually embed environmental sustainability within space mission design from the get-go.

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DAPHNE KASRIEL ALEXANDER, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.