Space junk capable of taking out future missions from Earth is to be cleaned up in an ambitious project by scientists from one of Europe’s most advanced technical universities in Switzerland.
The ClearSpace project by researchers and academics at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) aims to slow down unused satellites and discarded rocket components so they disintegrate on re-entry to Earth.
In 2019, ClearSpace was selected by the European Space Agency to lead the first mission to remove debris from orbit by 2025.
As life on Earth becomes ever more reliant on developments in space and its exploration, keeping Earth’s orbit free from potentially devastating man-made materials has reached crisis point.
While thousands of smaller pieces of material orbit the planet, a single object the size of a marble has the potential to cause damage akin to a hand grenade if it collides at high speed with a satellite or launch craft.
“Many objects are non-operational and tumbling uncontrollably around Earth,” said Luc Piguet, chief executive of ClearSpace SA.
“This brings a risk of collision. They are usually failed rocket stages or failed satellites and there are around 5,000 currently in orbit.”
Only a short stroll from the banks of Lake Geneva, the university is home to some of the country’s sharpest minds and also has a research centre in Ras Al Khaimah.
Sustainability and environmental innovations are at the heart of much of the work of the scientists and students on campus, with a special division dedicated to cleaning up Earth’s orbit.
The university’s eSpace programme offers 26 academic courses in space technology, with sustainable attitudes towards exploration and research.
The Lausanne institute is ranked 18th on a global list of universities, with performance graded according to academic or research performance.
Why space junk is such a problem
Space infrastructure has become more essential for our daily lives.
Everything from telecoms and internet access to GPS, weather reports, flight radar and observation of pollution levels and deforestation on Earth rely on space technology.
“Every year over the last two decades we have been adding 74 derelict satellites to space, so it has been a steady growth,” Mr Piguet said.
“This result is a lot of fragmentation events in either collisions or explosions of these objects, which generate an exponentially growing source of debris.”
This event is known as the Kessler Syndrome and causes an avalanche effect of space debris.
Former Nasa scientist Donald Kessler's theory suggests continuing to launch into space without a plan of bringing things back down to Earth would cause debris to reach a critical mass, where collisions between objects would be inevitable.
These impacts can occur at speeds of 28,000kph and create more debris, which in turn create more collisions.
About 3,400 live satellites are circling Earth providing critical information and infrastructure on the ground.
The UAE has satellites in low-Earth orbit that produce data commercially for private companies all over the world, with KhalifaSat, the first Emirati-built satellite, used to boost the commercial space sector.
Of the 5,000 or so known items circling the planet at speed, 50 larger items are of most concern.
How will the space junk be cleared?
A ClearSpace pod will approach debris in a ‘safe orbit’ – the same rotating orbit as the item the pod aims to collect.
Once the capture of debris is complete, it is slowed down enough to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at a specific area where there is low air traffic or risk of debris making contact with the ground.
The project is still in its design phase but involves several European nations, 50 engineers and 20 companies. ClearSpace is expected to launch its first module by 2025 at a cost of about €110 million ($130.2m).
The ClearSpace 1 mission will aim to remove one large piece of rocket cone, with other missions planned alongside British and Japanese space programmes.
“Launching into space has become very affordable, so we expect this problem of space debris to continue and increase,” Mr Piguet said.
“We created this start-up to deal with active removal of debris or failed satellites.
“We want to build a reusable platform which will be a satellite or servicer that is able to bring up a satellite into orbit, deploy it and then capture a derelict object and re-orbit it.
“It will then dock with another satellite and then continue other operations like repairs to other satellites while in orbit.
“We have all the technology available to do navigation, capture, rendezvous and manipulation with all the robotics required to complete the process.
“It will help create a safer space environment with a very limited level of risk.”