This Giant Claw Could Soon Clean Up Space Junk

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Humanity launched the first satellite in 1957, and since then we’ve put thousands of objects into orbit, regardless of the future. Together with about 3,000 active satellites, we now have 900,000 pieces of space debris larger than four inches. The results could be disastrous if even a tiny piece of debris collided with a manned spacecraft, or just inconvenient if it hits a satellite. In either case, you want to avoid this. Cleaning up rooms to prevent collisions is a big job, but ESA has just funded a giant space claw that could lead the way forward.

Most launch operators don’t usually go on a mission to clutter the space around the earth. Even so, satellites, booster motors and smaller machines that no longer exist can remain in orbit long after their useful life. Some objects naturally fall back to Earth when their orbit decreases, but the volume of space debris is still moving in the wrong direction, and space will be much more crowded with mega-constellations of SpaceX and others.

In order to counteract the increase in space debris, ESA has awarded Switzerland-based ClearSpace SA an order worth EUR 86 million to carry out the first active debris removal operation. ESA will provide expertise and money, but ClearSpace SA will do all the engineering and design work. It will also seek additional funding for the mission from commercial investors.

The goal of the ESA mission is a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) that has been in 400 mile orbit since 2013 when it helped launch a Vega rocket in 2013. The team chose this object because it is an orbit and composition is well understood, and it is about the size of a small satellite.

The mission, known as ClearSpace-1, could start as early as 2025. The claw-shaped spaceship will hit the Vespa wreckage and grab onto it with the claws. After that, the object is simply drawn into the atmosphere, where it and the claw burn. Obviously, you would need a lot of these devices to clear the earth orbit jam, but this is just an initial test. If ClearSpace-1 is successful, the company can develop more efficient versions of the claw for catching trash.

Only time will tell whether ClearSpace’s approach to space debris removal is workable, but we have to do something. The more crowded the room, the more dangerous it is. Some scientists even fear that a chain reaction of space collisions known as the Kessler Effect could render space around the Earth unusable for years or decades.

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