The ESA is spending $100 million to clean up one piece of space junk

  • The European Space Agency is paying the equivalent of over $100 million to remove a single piece of manmade space junk from Earth orbit.
  • The ClearSpace-1 mission will launch in 2025 and attempt to bring down a rocket payload adapter.
  • The mission will be critical in demonstrating how future cleanup efforts may be possible.

We all love seeing rockets launch, carrying scientific equipment and sometimes human beings into space. It’s cool, and it’s proof that when humans put their minds to something they can accomplish great things. Unfortunately, launching things into space leaves a lot of trash behind, often floating in orbit around Earth for months or, in some cases, many years.

Space junk is a huge problem that is growing bigger by the day. Discarded rocket components, bits and pieces of old, defunct satellites, and even abandoned space stations (looking at you, China) have cluttered the area around Earth in greater density than ever before. Now, as a new initiative by the European Space Agency suggests, cleaning up that trash is going to be a complicated and apparently very, very costly task.

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According to a news release by the ESA, the agency has signed a massive contract with a Swiss startup called ClearSpace SA. The company has been awarded €86 million — which is roughly $102 million USD — for the purposes of removing a single large piece of space junk from Earth orbit. The mission, which will be ClearSpace-1, will launch in 2025 and attempt to bring down a Vespa payload adapter.

The object was part of a rocket launch that sent a satellite into space, and while the satellite made it to its intended destination, the payload adapter has also been orbiting Earth ever since. Now, the ESA wants it disposed of. It’s been orbiting Earth since 2013 and, the ESA says, is the size of “a small satellite.”

The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter). This object was left in an approximately 801 km by 664 km-altitude gradual disposal orbit, complying with space debris mitigation regulations, following the second flight of Vega back in 2013. With a mass of 112 kg, the Vespa target is close in size to a small satellite.

The space junk problem could be solved quickly if the objects that we don’t want orbiting Earth would just slow down enough that they fell into the atmosphere on their own. In the vast majority of cases, the intense friction of the objects meeting Earth’s atmosphere would destroy them completely. The aim for many conceptual space junk cleanup efforts has focused on this fact. Past proposals have included net systems and even harpoons that would snag space debris of various sizes and drag them down into the atmosphere where they would be destroyed.

If ClearSpace can pull it off, it’ll be a big achievement, but it will also be just the tiniest step toward the overarching goal of actually cleaning up the skies above our planet.

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