The First Mission to Clean Up Space Junk Will Launch in 2025

ClearSpace-1 will use a "Pac-Man system" to capture an abandoned rocket part, which may lead to a new market for commercial services in orbit.
December 9, 2019, 7:08pm
​Concept art of ClearSpace-1. Image: ESA
Concept art of ClearSpace-1. Image: ESA

It is hard to overstate the importance of waste removal services to the health and wellbeing of humans living on Earth. But trash retrieval is also a growing necessity beyond our planet, because debris left in orbit by decades of missions has cluttered outer space and heightened the odds of dangerous collisions with current and future spacecraft.

That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned ClearSpace-1, a trash collector designed to clean up hazardous space junk, for launch in 2025, according to a Monday statement. The idea is to establish a “new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal,” the statement says, following the general trend of opening up spaceflight to the private sector.

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ClearSpace-1 will be the first spacecraft to target an actual abandoned piece of space junk. It follows in the footsteps of past test missions such as RemoveDEBRIS, which launched to the International Space Station in 2018 and deployed small dummy objects to capture in orbit.

The spacecraft is tasked with collecting VESPA, a 120-kilogram payload adapter that was discarded in orbit during the 2013 launch of a Vega rocket. ClearSpace-1 will use a “Pac-Man system” to retrieve this spent rocket part, said Muriel Richard-Noca, the project manager for the mission, in a recent video explainer.

The Pac-Man analogy refers to ClearSpace-1’s strategy of enclosing a piece of junk within a containment structure, similar to how the beloved arcade game character gobbles down dots.

Once the spacecraft has captured the target with its four robotic legs, mission leads will command it to deorbit, or lose altitude, so that the debris can safely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Though the mission has been contracted by ESA, which is a governmental space agency, ClearSpace is a commercial venture established by space debris experts at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Space debris removal is a crucial technology to ensure safe spaceflight for public benefit, but the ClearSpace team also sees it as an obvious business opportunity.

These types of space “tow trucks” are only going to become more essential in the age of mega-constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink project, which will introduce thousands of new satellites into low-Earth orbit.

ClearSpace is not the only company that has anticipated this burgeoning market. Astroscale, a Japanese company, is also on track to experiment with capturing and disposing a 20-kilogram dummy payload next year, according to SpaceNews.

Eventually, these companies hope to develop even more sophisticated technologies, such as capturing multiple pieces of debris on each trip, with support from federal space agencies.

“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,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner, in Monday’s statement.

“That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue,” he added, stating that ESA will support these “essential new commercial services in the future.”