Tech UPTechnologyA suicide robot will clean up space junk in...

A suicide robot will clean up space junk in 2025

Take a 100 kilogram piece of space junk and disintegrate it in the atmosphere. Easy? ESA’s still-in-development pilot project, ClearSpace-1, aims at a first ever undertaking : cleaning up a piece of space junk. The mission will launch in 2025 and aims to wipe out the thousands of orbiting objects, a heap of space junk that surrounds the Earth.


Although it is hard to believe, it is possible that the largest garbage dump on Earth could be in space. In the last 60 years, thousands of tons of garbage have accumulated around the Earth. And it is that in low Earth orbit, up to about 2,000 kilometers of altitude, we can find a little of everything: more than 3,000 satellites that no longer work and tens of millions of smaller pieces of debris (the estimate is about 750,000 more fragments small) . And each object is moving at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour (they orbit the Earth at an average speed of 20,000 km / h). When two of these large pieces collide with each other, they fragment into more space junk, turning into dangerous little bullets that could seriously damage satellites and spacecraft. So unless a cleanup operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will increase as more and more satellites are put into orbit.

For this reason, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a plan to tackle this growing problem through the Clearspace-1 mission, led by a Swiss startup called Clearspace in consortium with ESA.


A for Vespa

The primary target of ClearSpace-1 will be a piece of junk called the Vespa, which was dropped into an orbit about 800 km above Earth by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. It is the size of a small satellite and weighs 100 kilos. Due to its simple shape and robust construction, it is very suitable for space testing. It is a relatively light lens and easy to capture. And it’s unlikely that when the spacecraft picks it up, it will fragment. Vespa will be “hunted” with four robotic arms that, once in their power, will drag it out of the orbit of the Earth, with what the end of both will end up burning in the atmosphere.


As this is a suicide mission for the robot, the ideal, if all goes according to plan, would be to create a permanent cleaning robot that can expel space debris into the atmosphere without having to detach from the ship itself in each cleaning operation . It is not profitable, of course. But right now you have to show if the concept works.

The ultimate goal is to create a spacecraft that can be propelled and steered in low orbit with a “high level of autonomy,” according to the startup that is responsible for designing the machine.

“The problem of space debris is more pressing than ever. And in the coming years, the number of satellites will increase in magnitude, with multiple mega constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit”, explains Luc Piguet, CEO of ClearSpace.


Creating a network of garbage collectors for these satellites involves many challenges. After all, powering a spacecraft still costs a lot of money, and while scientists have been exploring cheaper options for many years, nothing has yet paid off.

The ClearSpace mission will cost 117 million euros.


Is there competition?

There is another Tokyo-based company called Astroscale that could get ahead of ClearSpace. It plans to launch its first demos in 2020, but whether it can be profitable or not is another question. Other nations and agencies are investigating other garbage disposal methods, including the deployment of small networks and the use of satellite-mounted lasers to launch fragments of space debris into the atmosphere. It seems that the business of collecting space debris is taking off.


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