Science & Technology

Europe plans to pioneer cosmic cleaning services in 2025

By Antonio Broto

Geneva, Aug 16 (efe-epa).- While the US and Chinese space programs look to the moon or even Mars, Europe is seeking to pioneer cosmic cleaning services by clearing the increasing amount of space debris orbiting the Earth.

Disused satellites, pieces of rocket boosters, solar panels, and even nuts and bolts orbit hundreds of kilometres above our planet and move at speeds of up to 28,000 kilometres per hour, posing an ever-increasing risk to future space missions.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is the first to have decided to develop a space cleaning mission, and last October it commissioned a Swiss start-up company with the appropriate name of ClearSpace to design the first device for this purpose, which the European Union hopes to launch by 2025.

The project involves nations like the UK, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden, and they are still looking for more partners.

The first simulated digital images of how the technology will work, show what looks like a “hunting satellite” with large robotic arms to grab huge pieces of space debris.

On its maiden mission, the cleaning satellite, which has no official name yet, will have to pick up a 100-kilogram fragment of the European Vega rocket.

The spacecraft, developed by Italy for the ESA, launched in 2013 and stands 660 kilometres above the Earth.

The satellite would then bring the fragment closer to the Earth’s atmosphere, where it would initially disintegrate due to the high levels of friction.

“This object was chosen because it would be similar to those for future satellite de-orbit operations, and it is also relatively simple to reduce risks in a complex and challenging operation,” Luc Piguet, ClearSpace’s CEO, told Efe.

The project, in which Microsoft is also participating, is still in its preparation phase but has a relatively short deadline of March 2021 to complete the mission design.

ClearSpace, a firm born at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, is the first step towards cleaning up the cosmos.

After 60 years of orbital launches by an increasingly long list of countries, is becoming more necessary to avoid a potential “Kessler syndrome” scenario.

Named after NASA expert Donald J. Kessler who first warned of this risk, the Kessler syndrome refers to a high volume of garbage in orbit, enough to generate a spiral of scrap which could impact satellites still in use.

“Today the risks for astronauts and satellites are still at a manageable level, but an exponential growth of special debris can quickly lead to intolerable operating conditions,” Piguet admitted.

Efforts are already being made to avoid putting satellites into orbit at relatively low altitudes (between 100 and 600 kilometers) because of the high level of debris already circulating at that height.

The clean-up mission may be the first small step in a process of removing orbital fragments that is increasingly necessary, although ClearSpace warns that it must be accompanied by other measures, such as forcing all satellites launched in the future to leave orbit at the end of their operational life.

The location where the cleaning satellite will be assembled, as well as the final budget for the mission, has yet to be determined.

Piguet explained: “Our goal is obviously to reduce costs over time and make debris removal affordable for operators and agencies.” EFE-EPA


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