An ambitious space debris removal mission now has its rocket ride.
Swiss startup ClearSpace plans to launch an “active debris clearance mission” to clear a piece of space debris no earlier than the first half of 2026. This mission, known as ClearSpace-1, will fly aboard an Arianespace Vega-C rocket, we learned Tuesday (May 9).
ClearSpace-1 aims to “bring together, capture and remove a piece of space debris,” according to a press release (opens in a new tab) issued by France-based Arianespace on Tuesday.
If all goes according to plan on the European Space Agency (ESA)-funded mission, the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft will encounter a payload adapter left behind by a Vega rocket launch in 2013. The adapter is already in a “ This means it will naturally fall back into Earth’s atmosphere without intervention.
“The simple form of this space junk will make it possible [the mission] to demonstrate the technologies of the spacecraft and its quartet of robotic arms, paving the way for more demanding missions with multiple exposures per flight,” Arianespace added in Tuesday’s statement.
Related: The Worst Space Debris Events Ever
According to ESA (opens in new tab), humans have launched more than 12,000 satellites since the beginning of the space age in 1957. While most of them are active or have entered Earth’s atmosphere naturally, ESA estimates that there are still 3,000 inoperative spacecraft in orbit.
Hundreds more satellites are launched every year. Many of them are part of SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation, which aims to eventually have 40,000 members in orbit, ten times the 4,000 currently active Starlink spacecraft.
Then there are the remains left by space missions. ESA estimates that there are about 36,500 debris objects more than 10 centimeters (4 in) wide, 1 million between 1 and 10 cm (0.4 in and 4 in) in diameter and 330 million that are in Earth orbit less than 1 cm (0.4 inch) are greater than 0.04 inch (1 millimeter).
Each of these parts whips around the earth with unbelievable speed. For example, the International Space Station (which has had to dodge orbital debris dozens of times) is in an orbit where objects are traveling at speeds of about 17,000 miles per hour. With more spacecraft and parts, the risk of debris colliding or even colliding with live spacecraft increases, which occasionally happens despite operators’ best efforts.
Related: How Often Does the International Space Station Have to Dodge Space Debris?
The Vega-C rocket has completed two flights into space so far. Its first flight in July 2022 was a success, but the second, which took off on December 20, failed due to a defect in a rocket nozzle, according to an investigation cited by ESA in March.
Arianespace has committed to implementing the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations and targeting another launch of Vega-C in late 2023.
Vega-C is a more powerful successor to the Vega line of missiles launched in 2012. In comparison, Vega-C can carry 5,070 pounds (2,300 kilograms) of payload into a 435-mile (700-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit. According to Arianespace (opens in new tab), the weight of the older rocket is up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg).
Another ESA-funded mission by the Tokyo-based Astroscale project ELSA-d was launched in March 2021 using a simulated piece of debris. However, debris capture tests were halted in May 2022 due to “anomalous spacecraft conditions,” Astroscale said at the time.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).