Space Junk Menace: ESA to launch debris collector in 2025

From afar, Earth looks serene and without a companion except for the obvious Moon revolving around it. Zoom in closer, the picture is not all that tranquil as we can see debris from now defunct satellites, ranging in thousands, hurtling around at high velocities.

These are the fall outs of the satellites that we have sent into space for the last 60 years. The troubling aspect is that they are prone to colliding with each other and each collision can have a cascading impact on others, creating more collisions and more space debris as a consequence in what’s dubbed as the Kessler syndrome, which can put the existing functional satellites in jeopardy.

Space organizations around the world are grappling with the problem of how to clear this debris and the European Space Agency (ESA) has offered a way in the right direction to rid Earth of these unwanted and fragmented pieces.

ESA has announced that it will launch a satellite in 2025 that can potentially be a testing ground to clear this space debris we have created. The mission goal is to collect them with a four-armed robot to in effort to clear them.

The Clear Space – 1 mission, will cost £120 m and will grab a single piece of junk and with the success of the mission, they can look at clearing a wide area containing debris in the future.

The ESA’s director general has also advocated for new rules that would make the countries responsible to clear the debris resulting from the launch of their own satellites once it’s become derelict.

Jan Worner, ESA’s director general, giving an analogy, has said that sailing the oceans would be very much difficult if every one of the ships that we had ever lost still drifts aloft the oceans.

There is an estimated 3500 defunct satellites and a staggering 750,000 small fragments traveling at the speed of 20,000 km/h (12,500 mph). Even a small fragment traveling at this speed can be catastrophic for a functioning satellite and hence the clear up operation has become more imperative than ever in the history of space flights.

Funding for this mission was agreed upon at the Space 19+, ESA’s ministerial council, in Spain in November and its being spearheaded by a Swiss startup called Clearspace.

Clearspace – 1 is currently targeting a junk, weighing around 100 kg, called Vespa, which was a fallout from the ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013, currently in orbit 800 km above Earth. They have chosen this junk as it’s unlikely to get fragmented when we capture because of its structural integrity is quite robust.

The “chaser” probe will insert itself into an appropriate orbit, grab Vespa using its robotic arms, change the course of it which would result in both the junk and the probe to come crashing down into the atmosphere and burning eventually.

If successful, this could be employed to clean up space in future missions where this can be emulated.

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