Spacewatch: ESA awards first junk clean-up contract

ClearSpace-1 is planned for launch in 2025 and will be the first mission to remove an item of space debris from orbit. After a competitive bid process, the European Space Agency has awarded a service contract to a consortium led by the Swiss startup company ClearSpace, which is staffed by space debris experts from the École polytechnique fedérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute.

The service contract model is a different way of working on missions for ESA. Usually the agency takes an active role in defining how a mission works. In this instance, however, it is paying ClearSpace to remove a piece of space junk but not specifying how that should be done. In this way, ESA is hoping to stimulate a commercial market for comparatively low-cost space debris removal.

The contract with ClearSpace is worth about €100m (£84.3m) and will focus on removing the payload adapter that helped deliver the ESA spacecraft Proba-V into orbit. This 100kg object has been in orbit since 2013, looping around Earth in an 800km by 660km altitude elliptical orbit. ClearSpace-1 will meet its target, grasp it using four robotic arms, and tow it into the Earth’s atmosphere where both spacecraft will burn up.


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