The ESA’s Spacecraft Can Refuel, Refurbish, and Boost Satellites in Orbit
Desperate times call for desperate measures. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are 128 million objects the size of 1 mm to 1 cm, 900,000 objects the size of 1 cm to 10 cm, and 34,000 objects greater than 10 cm currently whizzing around our planet.
These objects are in danger of colliding with new space missions causing untold damage. That's why ESA is now repurposing its proposed e.Deorbit mission initially conceived to take down a derelict satellite, according to a press statement by the agency. The new mission will serve as a space servicing vehicle.
The Clean Space initiative
e.Deorbit will now be responsible for the refueling, refurbishing, and boosting of satellites already in orbit. It's called the Clean Space initiative and it was first introduced in 2013 to safely deorbit the derelict Envisat Earth-observing satellite in highly trafficked low-Earth orbit. The satellite had suddenly stopped working in 2012 without any notice.
“Today we have the funding to develop relevant technologies but not to actually remove a defunct satellite,” explained in a statement Luisa Innocenti, head of the Clean Space initiative. “Instead, we have asked industry to make proposals to remove a defunct ESA object while demonstrating in-orbit servicing – the new path to a potentially very valuable business.”
A Swiss Army knife
ESA refers to their new project as a ‘Swiss Army knife’ type of space vehicle because it's capable of undertaking all kinds of varied and complex tasks in space. This new device can safely and securely refuel high-value satellites reaching the end of their lives, add new equipment to them, or even attach to them to direct and move them to new orbits.
But perhaps its most important and crucial task is active debris removal. This final capability has the potential to ensure that our new cluttered space environment could soon be safe again for new satellites and other space objects.