EPFL startup heads a mission to clean up space

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ClearSpace, a spin-off of EPFL’s Space Center (eSpace), has been selected to lead a major European Space Agency (ESA) space debris de-orbiting project with a total budget topping €100 million. The startup and its consortium will develop and fly the first-ever mission to capture and remove a disused ESA asset from Space.

In an unprecedented move, the European Space Agency (ESA) has selected a startup to lead a consortium and execute a landmark Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission under the recently introduced Space Safety Programme. EPFL spin-off ClearSpace will head the ADRIOS activity, developing technologies to capture and de-orbit space debris. The ClearSpace-1 mission will involve recovering a now-obsolete Vespa Upper Part, a payload adapter that once formed part of the Agency’s Vega payload rocket. The ClearSpace-led consortium was selected out of 13 European and Canadian consortia that included the leading names in the Space and Avionics industry. Eight ESA member states have pledged funding for the ClearSpace-1 mission, and the budget was approved at the Space19+ Ministerial meeting in Seville, Spain, in late November. Work is set to begin in early 2020. The removal of the VESPA adapter is planned for 2025.

Space is becoming increasingly cluttered with debris. In addition to the 2,000 working satellites currently orbiting our planet, there are over 3,000 abandoned ones. ESA estimates that currently there are more than 34’000 objects of 10 cm and more and this number is rapidly increasing. All this junk is causing a major risk to spaceflight. When disused satellites wear down, explode or collide with other objects, they break up into smaller pieces of all shapes and sizes, many of which measure less than 10 cm across and are undetectable from Earth.

The right time to act
These fast-moving projectiles hurtle around the planet at 28,000 km/h, posing a clear and present danger to spacecraft and crew. Depending on their distance and trajectory, it can take centuries for these objects to de-orbit on their own (if at all). And with plans to launch thousands of satellites into Space in the next five years – most forming part of network constellations – finding new ways to clear obsolete objects and defective satellites from orbit has never been so urgent. Some 40% of modern-day mobile applications rely on satellites and Space infrastructure is a critical component of industries ranging from TV and telecommunications to logistics and Earth observation. The time to act is now. ESA’s groundbreaking endeavour – to capture and recover one of its own disused satellites – is a first. It is a precedent-setting mission that will pave the way for other, similar missions in the future, laying the foundation for sustainable business models targeting the decluttering and responsible development of Space.
10 years of experience in space debris Since 2010, researchers at EPFL’s Space Center (eSpace) have been hard at work on new space debris rendezvous-and-capture systems as part of the CleanSpace One project. In early 2018, they founded ClearSpace to pick up where the project left off – and turn the idea into a viable, sustainable business model. The startup’s first debris-clearing space robot was designed to de-orbit SwissCube, a Cubesat-type nano-satellite launched into orbit by EPFL and its partners in 2009. The company will now repurpose its space robot to capture a new target: the Vespa Upper Part. This cone-shaped object, weighing 120 kg and measuring 1.8 m by 2 m, was part of an ESA Vega rocket launched in 2013 and designed to place several satellites into orbit.

Eight ESA member states, including Switzerland, will together contribute €86 million to the ADRIOS programme. The total budget stretches to €100.2 million, with ClearSpace expected to provide the remaining financing from sponsor partners and private investors.

This article was first published  on 9 December 2019 by EPFL.

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