How much would you be willing to spend to remove a piece of space debris? Does $102 million sound like enough? That is how much a contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and a Swiss start-up named ClearSpace SA is worth, and the entire contract is to simply remove a single piece of space debris.
Admittedly it is a rather large piece of debris – the Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (Vespa) payload adapter weighs in at 112 kilograms (247 pounds). It was originally launched to release a satellite back in 2013, and since then has been aimlessly drifting around the Earth, like so much other derelict space junk. This type of contract is also the first of its kind, and much of the cost of the project is devoted to developing as yet untested technology. Any technology that can directly deal with space junk is well worth the investment.
That space junk could potentially cause huge headaches for craft trying to leave Earth’s gravity well, even possibly causing a catastrophic series of events known as Kessler Syndrome. Before the situation gets to that tipping point, numerous teams have begun development on technologies to capture or deorbit space junk. The contract with ClearSpace is just the first of many such contracts that will be necessary in order to ensure that we will continue to have access.
Interestingly, even with a contract valued at 9 figures, ClearSpace will still need outside investment in order to cover the full mission cost. The company, which is a spin-off of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), will also be heavily engaged with experts at ESA to help plan and execute on this critical mission. If something goes awry, a failed mission could exacerbate the problem of space debris rather than help to solve it.
The technology that Clearspace plans to use is a net that collapses onto satellites. Several other companies have various different technologies under development, including the RemoveDEBRIS consortium in the UK and Astroscale out of Japan. Whichever of these technologies proves to be the most effective, it will require massive scale-up in order to address the size of this growing problem. So expect to see much larger contract amounts for space debris clean up in the not-to-distant future.
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