In Depth

How the ESA’s space hoover works

The space agency’s robot debris collector is set for its first mission in 2025

The European Space Agency is to launch a four-armed robot into orbit in what it claims is the first mission to remove debris from space.

The 2025 mission, to be carried out by Swiss start-up ClearSpace, will cost €120m (£100m) and will grab a single piece of rubbish, “Vespa”, a leftover piece of ESA’s Vega rocket that was launched in 2013.

Why is it necessary?

In what The Times describes as “the final frontier in vacuum cleaning”, the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft will retrieve just one piece of junk, but the ESA hopes that the mission will pave the way for a much bigger space clean-up operation.

The ESA’s director general Jan Worner has called for new rules governing those who launch satellites, making them responsible for removing their debris from orbit when the satellites are taken out of use.

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” said Worner. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

Over the past 60 years, thousands of tonnes of junk has accumulated around the Earth. The rubbish includes old rocket parts, around 3,500 retired satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments – some a result of larger pieces of junk colliding with each other. The fragments are circulating with a velocity of 12,500mph, says The Guardian.

The debris floating in space poses a danger to future satellites and rockets, as the chance of collisions is set to grow until a clean-up operation gets under way. 

“The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before,” says Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace. “The need is clear for a ‘tow truck’ to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region.”

How does it work?

The ClearSpace-1 probe will be launched into orbit near the target debris, Vespa, and then attempt to grab it using its four robotic arms.

Vespa weighs 100kg, about the same as a small satellite, and was chosen for the inaugural clean-up because of its simple shape and sturdy construction, which means it is less likely to break up when it is grabbed.

The probe is essentially “a four-armed robot that tracks down space waste like Pac-Man in a maze”, says Science Alert.

After it has grabbed the waste, it will head back to Earth, where both junk and probe will burn up as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

The ambition is to create a probe that could shoot debris off towards the atmosphere to burn up, but then continue on itself to de-orbit other bits of waste.

ESA has allocated €70m for the first three years of the programme, after which the agency’s 22 member states will need to discuss funding the remainder of the mission, says Space News.

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