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Europe Is Launching a Suicide Robot to 'Hug' Space Trash Out of Orbit

An artist's rendering shows the ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arms to capture the conical piece of space debris called Vespa.
An artist's rendering shows the ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arms to capture the conical piece of space debris called Vespa. (Image credit: ClearSpace)

The largest garbage dump on Earth might be in space. 

In low Earth orbit — the space around our planet up to about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) in altitude — more than 3,000 defunct satellites and tens of millions of smaller pieces of debris clatter around the atmosphere. And each is moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Sometimes, two big pieces of this so-called "space junk" crash into each other, fragmenting into yet more junk, each one a tiny bullet of trash that could critically damage satellites and spacecraft. 

It's a real problem. Now, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced plans to tackle that problem, using robot hugs.

In a mission known as ClearSpace-1, ESA will launch an experimental, four-armed robot to grasp a defunct satellite in its clutches, hug the object close, then finally drag it on a kamikaze dive into Earth's atmosphere — destroying both devices. The impact of removing one dead satellite from orbit is a bit like taking one bucketful of water out of Lake Superior. But mission officials said in a statement that they hope the project will pave the way for the new regime of space-debris cleanup that our atmosphere desperately needs. 

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"The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before," Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace, the Swiss junk-removal startup partnering with ESA on the mission, said in the statement. "Today, we have nearly 2,000 live satellites in space and more than 3,000 failed ones. And in the coming years, the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit."

The need for a cosmic "tow truck" to remove defunct satellites and make room for new ones is urgent, Piguet said. 

Scheduled to launch in 2025, the ClearSpace-1 mission will test its robotic hugging muscles on a midsize piece of junk called Vespa, which ESA's Vega launcher deposited about 500 miles (800 km) above Earth in 2013. That conical chunk of debris weighs about 220 lbs. (100 kilograms), making it a relatively light and easy target for capture on the robot's debut mission. 

After that capture, Vespa and the robotic garbage collector will make a controlled yet fiery descent into Earth's atmosphere. The cost of this one-time mission is estimated to be about $133 million, according to The Guardian.

Whether the mission proves to be a cost-effective way of clearing Earth's orbital trash remains to be seen. In the meantime, various other nations and agencies have proposed other junk-removal methods, including deploying tiny nets and using satellite-mounted lasers to blast bits of space debris into the atmosphere. Truly, it's an exciting time to be in the space garbage collection business!

Originally published on Live Science.

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Brandon Specktor
Brandon Specktor writes about the science of everyday life for Live Science, and previously for Reader's Digest magazine, where he served as an editor for five years. He grew up in the Sonoran Desert, but believes Sonoran hot dogs are trying way too hard.
  • Lariliss
    Thank you for sharing.
    Having several different engineering ideas on how to catch the junk in space, presented by different countries/companies.
    Would this announcement to bring activity increase in this field.
    Hopefully, till the planned 2025 launch there will be more consolidation between racing countries, and test launches will not bring more danger, but more supervision for any country launches.
    Reply
  • tidyme95
    that must be the costliest garbage disposal system in the history of mankind o_O but it is good to see that relevant steps are taken to clear out the orbit before debris starts colliding with functional satellites
    Reply
  • Lariliss
    Agree.

    This is only a visible part of the iceberg.
    But as all global approaches, this is a process.

    We are already there with 22000 of junk pieces flying over our planet. As far as I know, there was never done anything on that.

    Still, overcoming steps should also be a process. Maybe first steps may seem bizarre.

    But still think of, as soon as flying to space became more common and cheaper, awareness came broad and first steps are not only planned, but finished engineering process and are getting ready to be launched.

    Necessary to keep stiff whatever it takes as a number one priority, for my opinion.
    Reply
  • Lariliss
    The facts imply urgency. Today actions on the debris removal gets more awareness and action:

    - Space X announces debris removal trials (https://futurism.com/the-byte/elon-musk-giant-robot-chopsticks);- NASA & ESA making partnership for the surveillance and debris removal programs;
    - Pioneering private rocket launch companies, deploying new space technology go forth, as Skyrora does (https://www.skyrora.com/blog/tag/space-technology).
    Reply
  • 1Granytogo
    Perhaps some of our up-and-coming tech knowledge students can get together online and make a Brain STORMING GROUPE focussing on HOW TO GET A SYSTEM TO RETRIEVE- OR - SEND OUT COLLECTED SPACE DEBRIS IN A EARTH TO SUN TRAJECTORY FOR DISPOSAL.
    Reply
  • Lariliss
    There are lots of internships proposed by different companies, including those directed especially for debris removals.

    I am looking forward to such orchestration deployed for Earth surveillance and it’s citizens' urgent issues.

    Space, Climate Change, and International Cooperation: SWFoundation and British Embassy are hosting an experts panel role in monitoring and tackling climate change.

    These actions need strong, modern technology based companies to get involved (also with internship programs). One of the key features of success in space technology is the engagement of many countries and companies at the same time in order to have fast action due to the complexity of these projects.
    Reply