The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a $102 million contract with a Swiss start-up company to purchase a unique service: the first-ever removal of an item of space debris from orbit.
The company, ClearSpace SA, will capture part of a used rocket using what is described as a “tentacle,” and then dragging it down for reentry. The object to be removed from orbit is a so-called Vespa payload adapter that was used in 2013 to hold and then release a satellite. It weighs about 112 kilograms.
Experts have long warned that hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris circling the planet — including an astronaut’s lost mirror — pose a threat to functioning satellites and even the International Space Station (ISS).
During a remote news conference regarding the contract late Tuesday, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said there are more than a million pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. He said there have already been cases in which satellites and spacecraft have been hit by the debris.
The ESA says the deal with ClearSpace SA will lead to the “first active debris removal mission” in 2025, in which a custom-made spacecraft, known as the ClearSpace-1, will rendezvous with, capture and take down the Vespa payload adapter for reentry.
ClearSpace SA CEO Luc Piguet says the company hopes to expand such operations in the future to include multiple object removal, and even servicing and refueling spacecraft.
“When we look toward the future, what we can see already today is that there’s more than 5,000 nonfunctional objects in orbit, which essentially are, if you want, clients that need some sort of service. And every year, we add 74 new objects to this list,” Piguet says.