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The European Space Agency, in partnership with Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA, will launch the first active space debris removal mission in 2025.
ESA inked an €86 million ($103 million) deal to purchase the unique service, which, in five years, will capture the upper part of a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from Europe’s Vega launcher.
Following the 2013 Vega flight, Vespa was left in what ESA called a low-Earth-orbit “gradual disposal unit,” in compliance with space debris mitigation regulations. ClearSpace-1 will use agency-developed arm technology (which looks strikingly similar to the claw in those arcade games) to capture the device—about the size of a small satellite—and perform a controlled atmospheric reentry.
As of October 2019, the US Space Surveillance Network reported nearly 20,000 artificial objects orbiting Earth, including more than 2,200 operational satellites. And those are just the items large enough to be tracked; there are millions of pieces of tiny debris floating through the cosmos, just waiting to crash into spacecraft.
In the past six years, the International Space Station twice narrowly avoided a collision with the remains of old Russian satellites. And just last month, a segment of out-of-commission sputnik and a discarded Chinese rocket nearly plowed into each other, escaping serious impact by about 230 feet.
“ClearSpace-1 will demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight,” according to an ESA press release.
“With this contract signature, a critical milestone for establishing a new commercial sector in space will be achieved,” the European Space Agency continued. “Purchasing the mission in an end-to-end service contract, rather than developing an ESA-defined spacecraft for in-house operation, represents a new way for ESA to do business.”
With a little help from its Ministerial Council, the European Space Agency is purchasing the initial mission; ClearSpace SA will raise the remaining funds through commercial investors.
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