Space junk is becoming a serious problem as more and more companies launch their own satellites into orbit. Once those units stop working, they continue to float in space, posing a hazard for future launches and other satellites.
That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) has an aggressive new plan to deal with the issue. It is planning to launch a massive claw that grabs space junk and pulls it back into the Earth’s atmosphere. From there, it safely burns up during reentry and no longer poses a threat to the functional bodies in orbit.
Cleaning Up Space
To be clear, the ESA has been planning on using this technique for some time. The agency originally conceived the plan back in 2019. However, it is just now ready to begin the construction of its giant space claw.
It is working with a Swiss startup called ClearSpace to build and launch the claw. The mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, will reportedly launch in 2025. Of course, that timeline remains fluid given the experimental nature of this project as well as the potential delays caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The deal with ClearSpace is worth $103 million.
The project is an interesting (and important) one regardless of how long it takes to launch. Space junk isn’t going away anytime soon without some sort of intervention. Although there are plenty of viable strategies out there, this is perhaps one of the easiest to implement.
The ESA’s claw will first target a piece of junk that has been orbiting the planet since 2013. It is a 112-kilogram secondary payload adapter that helped launch a Vega rocket for the agency. Since it is roughly the size of a small satellite, the ESA believes it will be a good test of the claw’s abilities.
In 2019, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network found that there are nearly 20,000 artificial objects in orbit around the Earth. That includes 2,200 operational satellites (a number that has quickly grown thanks to companies like SpaceX). However, most of those bodies are simply junk left behind from previous launches.
Each one poses a risk to future space missions since a high-speed collision in orbit would be nothing short of disastrous. The 20,000 objects noted above are only the ones that are large enough to be tracked. Researchers estimate that there are millions of smaller pieces of debris that can cause severe damage to spacecraft.
It’s clear that space junk is becoming a serious problem. The International Space Station has had to dodge the remains of old Russian satellites on two occasions in the past six years. As more junk is added to the Earth’s orbit each year, the problem will only get worse.
In a statement, the ESA says, “ClearSpace-1 will demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.”
It will be interesting to see how the claw-based removal system works. If it is successful, the future of spaceflight would be much safer.