The CLEAR Mission: Satellite removes junk from Space

A UK-based mission will be among the first to begin removing junk from space, grabbing it with a huge claw and moving it into an orbit that will see it burn up in the atmosphere.

The CLEAR mission will remove two large pieces of space junk from low Earth orbit, the first attempt to ease the dangerously congested space environment.

“If you think about a car, if it breaks down or runs out of fuel we do something about it. We fix it, we refuel it, we use it again. In space we don’t do that. We treat satellites as a single use items. We use them once. We discard them. We leave them to clutter up space and interfere with future space operations. So that’s unsustainable, we need to do something differently,” Rory Holmes, managing director of ClearSpace UK told Reuters.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission says of 10,000 satellites deployed since 1957 more than half are no longer working.

Space debris, or space junk, also consists of discarded launch vehicles or parts of a spacecraft that float around in space hundreds of miles above the Earth, risking collision with a satellite or a space station.

Debris can also be caused by an explosion in space or when countries conduct missile tests to destroy their own satellites by missiles. Russia, China, the United States and India have shot down satellites, creating space debris.

As space debris orbits around the earth at tremendous speeds – about 15,700 miles per hour (25,265 kph) in low Earth orbit – it could cause significant damage to a satellite or a spacecraft in case of a collision.

“We see collisions happening. We see these debris clouds, it’s only going to get worse. We can’t ignore this problem. We have to act now,” Holmes said.

“This, as far as we know, will be the first removal of a real piece of debris from orbit.”

In 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) selected ClearSpace to lead the first mission to remove an ESA-owned item from orbit, with a launch planned in 2025-26.

ClearSpace technology involves a steerable satellite with a large claw-grab, capturing targets and releasing them in a lower orbit that will see them burn up.

“They will get close to them, navigate close to them, and then attach, grab onto them, give them a big hug with our robotic capabilities and then pull them down out of the way and let them safely burn up in the atmosphere and prevent them causing trouble or crashing or interacting with other space objects,” Holmes said.

Cleaning up debris is expected to be a huge growth area for what’s being called in-orbit-services, a brand new sector which it’s estimated will be worth more than $14B by 2030.

ClearSpace believe sustainability in orbit is about keeping satellites operating as much as removing the waste.

“We see that lots of satellites are still functioning but run out of fuel. And without fuel, they can’t keep operating,” Holmes said.

“What we do is we provide services that go and extend the life of those satellites. We go and attach onto the back of them. We take over their orbital control, we keep them pointing in the right direction and keep them serving their customer.”

ClearSpace are leading a consortium of companies involved in the design of the mission to remove two derelict UK registered objects which have been inactive for more than 10 years.

These objects are predicted stay in orbit for a century before they naturally re-enter the atmosphere and are located in a very congested region of low earth orbit, above 700 km altitude, endangering the space environment and the safety of space operations.



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