How space debris could derail ESA’s ClearSpace-1 mission

The Clearspace-1 mission is due to launch in 2026, but its target may have smashed into more space debris flying around Earth.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Clearspace-1 mission.
An artist's impression of the Clearspace-1 mission.

Clearspace / Twitter 

A European space debris cleanup mission run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Swiss startup ClearSpace has been adversely affected by space debris.

The mission, called ClearSpace-1, is aiming to collect a Vespa payload adapter left in low Earth orbit by a Vega rocket over a decade ago.

However, in a statement yesterday, August 22, ESA announced it was informed by the US Space Force's 18th Space Defense Squadron 12 days earlier that it had identified several pieces of space debris in the region of the upcoming cleanup.

Ironically, the new debris likely came from an impact between the Vespa payload adapter and previously unaccounted-for space debris.

Space debris impact may prevent space cleanup

In 2020, ESA awarded Clearspace an €86 million ($93 million) contract to fly a mission to low Earth orbit capable of collecting the 113-kilogram Vespa adapter and removing it from orbit.

The Clearspace-1 mission isn't due to launch until 2026. Last year, though, the mission passed a program review, meaning it has successfully passed the initial design phase. In January this year, Clearspace raised €26.7 million toward mission costs.

In its statement, ESA said "the development of the ClearSpace-1 mission will continue as planned while additional data on the event is collected. ESA and industrial partners are carefully evaluating the event's impact on the mission," adding that this could take several weeks.

ESA is looking to become a world leader in space debris mitigation. In June, the space agency announced the "Zero Debris Charter Initiative", which aims to prevent the creation of more space debris.

In July, ESA performed an "assisted reentry" of an Earth science spacecraft called Aeolus. The Aeolus mission was originally intended to perform a controlled reentry into Earth's atmosphere, but it ran out of propellant before it could perform the deorbit maneuver.

The growing space debris problem

Despite ESA's best efforts, the space debris problem will likely only continue to grow as more and more satellites and spacecraft are lifted into Earth's orbit.

The ever-increasing problem means we may be closer to seeing a disastrous Kessler Syndrome scenario unfold.

In an interview with Interesting Engineering last year, University of Regina astronomer Dr. Samantha Lawler explained that SpaceX's Starlink constellation has us "right on the edge" of Kessler Syndrome and that this could drastically affect astronomical operations as it would make it look like we are "inside a snow globe within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset."

What's more, the cleanup project would be comparable to "collecting bullets" from Earth orbit, Lawler added, due to the speed at which space debris flies around our planet.

According to NASA, there are more than 27,000 pieces of space debris in orbit. SpaceX currently has more than 4,000 active Starlink satellites in orbit and it has partial FCC approval for its second-generation Starlink constellation, consisting of up to 30,000 more satellites.

A recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing also showed that Starlink satellites have made more than 50,000 collision-avoidance maneuvers since they were first launched in 2019. That massive number already hints at how close we might be to Kessler Syndrome, and the probability will only continue to grow.

Stay posted for more updates from Clearspace and the European Space Agency regarding the status of the Clearspace-1 mission.

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