ESA permits four-armed robots to start clearing space debris in 2026

ClearSpace, a Swiss company, has secured clearance from the European Space Agency for a 2026 launch.
Ameya Paleja
The ClearSpace robot can grab and deorbit space junk.
The ClearSpace robot can grab and deorbit space junk.

ClearSpace  

ClearSpace, a Switzerland-based space company, has cleared the first program review by the European Space Agency (ESA), a company press release said. As the name suggests, the company wants to clear space debris that continue to orbit the planet. 

There has been a sharp increase in space launches over the past few years, thanks to private companies. As more countries look to flex their muscles in space, there is a threat from the debris left behind by earlier missions. Last year, Interesting Engineering reported on multiple occasions how the International Space Station (ISS) had to perform maneuvers to avoid space junk. 

Clearing debris from space

Ever since the ESA commissioned ClearSpace's first project, ClearSpace-1 in 2019, the company has been on a mission to clear space junk.

The mission consists of a giant four-armed robotic spacecraft that can grab space debris. Once the debris is captured, the spacecraft will send it down toward Earth, where it is expected to burn up in the atmosphere. 

While the initial plan was to launch ClearSpace-1 in 2025, the tentative year of launch has been moved to 2026, following the recent review. The mission's primary target will be the upper stage of the VEga Secondary Payload Adapter (VESPA) which was launched by the ESA rocket in 2013. 

Beyond the VESPA clearance, ClearSpace is also looking to develop the technology to tend to space debris autonomously. According to its website, future ClearSpace missions will be able to decide whether the space junk needs to be deorbited or refueled to extend its life.

The company currently has a team of 90 people who are working to solve the problem and carried out a proof-of-concept testing in October last year. Following the recent approval, the team will now work to finalize ClearSpace-1's designs, secure equipment, and build the full-scale mission to be launched in 2026.

As per ClearSpace's website, there are currently more than 5,000 nonfunctional objects in space, much more than 3,400 satellites that are active and in their orbit. With the popularity of services such as satellite-based internet picking up, the orbiting debris in space is only expected to increase

The ClearSpace-1 mission estimated to cost $132 million is therefore, likely to be one of the many missions that the ESA undertakes as part of its zero-debris policy. Earlier this month, the ESA tested a braking sail that can deorbit satellites once their mission is completed.

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