PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, has awarded two parallel contracts to teams to study ways to actively remove debris from low Earth orbit in the hope that the work will lead to a pan-European and, later on, a trans-Atlantic effort.
The two contracts, each valued at 350,000 euros ($455,000) and lasting 18 months, are with teams led by Astrium and Thales Alenia Space. Encouraged by their customer to be inventive in composing their consortia, both have selected partners from outside of France and outside Europe.
The Astrium team includes small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which is owned by Astrium; the Lausanne Polytechnical School of Switzerland; Bertin Technologies of France; and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston.
The Thales Alenia Space team includes GMV of Spain and MDA Corp. of Canada.
Oceaneering Space Systems describes itself as having provided hardware “for every satellite retrieval or repair mission that NASA has flown,” including the toolboxes and tools for the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions utilizing the now-retired space shuttle and equipment for the Solar Max repair mission in 1984.
Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA has extensive expertise in space robotics and a couple of years ago proposed building a satellite-refueling vehicle that would extend the life of several satellites owned by commercial fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. The deal fell through when no U.S. government customer was found.
CNES proposed to European Space Agency (ESA) governments in late 2012 that they fund a more elaborate version of what CNES now calls its Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) program in lieu of building a service module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle. The OTV would be based on ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, which is used to deliver cargo to the international space station.
But CNES’s ESA partners rejected the idea, in part because it would have cost much more than the 450 million euros that ESA owes NASA to pay Europe’s share of space station utility charges through 2020.
The new debris-removal study contracts, albeit for modest sums, suggest CNES is not giving up.
“The idea is that this starts with a CNES program, with small amounts of money and initial trans-Atlantic partnerships,” said one industry official involved with the work. “Then ultimately we will need to persuade the European Union or ESA to pick it up on its way to a more global effort — for example, with the United States. For the moment, there is no trans-Atlantic effort.”
One European industry official said the effort to remove debris one day must become global because of the sources of the current debris. According to the April 2013 issue of NASA’s Orbital Debris Quarterly News, Russia and the former Soviet Union are the source of more rocket stages and other debris in orbit than anyone else, with a total of 4,830 objects large enough to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
The United States is in second place, with 3,804 rocket bodies and other debris lingering in orbit, followed by China, with 3,612. Including France, ESA has 488 objects being tracked, according to NASA.
Space debris experts say that while solar activity and atmospheric drag ultimately will cause very low-orbiting debris to re-enter the atmosphere over time, this cannot be said for objects in higher orbits. The only solution, they say, is to actively remove these objects, some of them weighing several thousand kilograms.
Some studies have tentatively concluded that even if only a couple dozen large debris pieces were removed from certain low Earth orbits, the future of those busy orbital corridors could be stabilized.
How to do this is one of the focuses of the CNES studies.