How much would you be willing to spend to remove a piece of space debris? Does $ 102 million sound enough? This is how much a contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and a Swiss start-up called ClearSpace SA is worth, and the entire contract is to simply remove a single piece of space debris.
Granted, it's a pretty big chunk of dirt – the Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (Vespa) payload adapter weighs 112 kilograms. It was originally launched to release a satellite in 2013 and has since been drifting aimlessly around the earth like so much other derelict space debris. This type of contract is also the first of its kind, and a large part of the project costs are for developing untested technologies. Any technology that can directly deal with space debris is worth the investment.
This space junk could potentially cause a huge headache for vehicles trying to get out of Earth's gravity well, and possibly even cause a catastrophic string of events known as Kessler Syndrome. Before the situation reached this tipping point, numerous teams began developing technologies to capture or desorb space debris. The contract with ClearSpace is just the first of many such contracts that are required to ensure we continue to have access.
Short video about the effects of space debris.
Photo credit: In short, Youtube
Interestingly, even with an order value of 9 digits, ClearSpace still needs external investments to cover the full mission costs. The company, a spin-off from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), will also work closely with experts from ESA to help plan and carry out this critical mission. If something goes wrong, a failed mission could aggravate the space debris problem rather than help solve it.
Video with CleanSpace One – ClearSpace technology in development
Photo credit: EPFL Youtube
The technology Clearspace wants to use is a network that collapses on satellites. Several other companies have various technologies in development, including the RemoveDEBRIS consortium in the UK and Astroscale in Japan. Which of these technologies turns out to be the most effective will require massive scale-up to address the size of this growing problem. So expect much larger orders for space debris removal in the not too distant future.
EPFL – Giant Pac Man for devouring space debris
Phys.org – Europe signs US $ 102 million contract to bring space debris home
New Yorker – The Elusive Danger of Space Debris
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash / CC0 Public Domain