ClearSpace mission to remove space junk raises €26.7m of funding

ClearSpace mission to remove space junk raises €26.7m of funding

Huge sonic booms on February 13, 2009, caused many Americans to call Kentucky’s emergency services – but the noise was actually caused by two colliding Russian satellites in space. The smash propelled more than two thousand pieces of unstoppable space junk into orbit. This was the defining moment when the European Space Agency (ESA) felt compelled to take action and find a way to solve the problem.

There are now more than 32,000 tracked pieces of junk – and about 130 million other orbiting objects – in space. The good news is that Swiss startup ClearSpace, which has a London-based UK subsidiary, in collaboration with the ESA, has just raised €26.7 million (£23.4 million) in venture capital to support a mission to clear up the mess.

The ESA commissioned the Clearspace-1 project in 2020 as part of an €86 million contract described as the “first active debris removal mission”. Planned for 2026, Clearspace-1 ‘s first mission will capture the upper part of a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from the Vega rocket launched in 2013 with four robotic arms and take it out of orbit. This is an ambitious but hugely exciting project that has only become more urgent over time.

The idea is to prove to the world that this concept is possible and then to work on removing the rest of the defunct satellites from orbit. Not only do these pollute the environment but they can cause catastrophic collisions.

“We’ve been studying a mission to remove objects for the past 10 years,” said Luisa Innocenti, head of the ESA’s Clean Space initiative. “We developed concepts and technologies. The point is that we need to put all this together in flight to demonstrate to everybody that it works. The Clearspace-1 mission is fundamental to demonstrate worldwide that we can remove debris.”

A successful mission outcome is crucial because in the next three years more satellites – over 1,700 per year – will be launched, which is more than in the last 60 years. The long-term goal – a “zero net zero pollution” policy for space by 2030 – is to be able to remove satellites as soon as they finish their job. Up until now around 14,710 satellites have been launched into orbit, 9,780 are still in space, but only 7,100 are functioning.

The problem is also affecting space missions. Last month Nasa’s space walk outside the International Space Station was postponed as Russian debris flew precariously close. Instead, emergency manoeuvres were carried out to avoid the danger.

“Space sustainability and resilient operations is a challenge at the global scale – now is the time to build capabilities that will make our space operations more sustainable and affordable,” said ClearSpace CEO and co-founder Luc Piguet. “We need to ambitiously grow space activities while safeguarding this precious environment for future generations.”