It could be one small step for space junk, one giant leap for commercial space operations.
The European Space Agency signed an €86 million contract with a team led by Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA in November, talking to reporters on Tuesday about what could be the first space mission to remove an item of debris from orbit, and one that could potentially push the commercial space trash removal market forward. And folks, the proposed spacecraft has four robotic tentacles.
Space debris has long become a colossal problem, not one you can personally see clogging up your streets and drains outside, but one that could have serious impact on future space endeavours — particularly if you’re in the business of launching say, thousands of satellites.
It’s been 60 years since the Space Race started, and more than 5,550 rocket launches from Earth have left approximately 23,000 tracked objects remaining in space, not to mention the millions of bits and pieces floating around low Earth orbit known as “space junk.” About 9,600 satellites have been placed into Earth’s orbit to date, with about 5,500 still in space, and just 2,300 of those are functioning.
This only stands to increase, with today’s space industry averaging 100 launches a year. Add to this the rising popularity of satellite “mega-constellations” as a means for worldwide telecommunications coverage, consisting of hundreds, even thousands of objects — Elon Musk wants to send a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink project, aiming to provide high speed internet to the globe.
Problems arise when larger objects in orbit collide in space, causing fast-moving, smaller fragments of space debris to break off, creating a space junkyard that can cause all kinds of hazards at speed, especially for active spacecrafts. The 2009 collision between active commercial satellite Iridium 33 and inactive military satellite Kosmos-2251 has become the prime example of this, but even as recently as September last year, the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite had to fire its thrusters to avoid colliding with one of Musk’s Starlink satellites.
It’s a problem with exponential growth potential, most notably due to a phenomenon known as “Kessler Syndrome,” a term coined in 1978 by astrophysicist Don Kessler, a former senior scientist for orbital debris research at NASA, which describes the idea that one collision could result in several more, like falling dominos.
“The more populated the orbits around us get, the higher probability of collisions,” Rolf Densing, ESA director of operations told reporters on Tuesday. “This has happened in the past, and unfortunately, I’m quite sure that this will happen in the future as well.”
Space junk clean-up is no easy task — you can’t just vacuum it up, sweep it under some space rug, or pluck it out like a piece of lint on a cardigan. People have tried, some more successfully than others. NASA has been studying this since the ’70s. But ClearSpace’s