JOHANNESBURG — The European Space Agency (ESA) has finalized an 86 million euro ($104 million) contract with Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA to complete the world’s first space debris removal mission. 

ClearSpace-1 represents the first space debris removal that is not a demonstration mission, ESA Director General, Jan Wörner, said during a Dec. 1 media briefing. The payload adapter ClearSpace-1 intends to retrieve is an active piece of space debris, something that is far more challenging to retrieve than a stable target, he added.

“With space debris, by definition no such control is possible: instead the objects are adrift, often tumbling randomly,” said Wörner. “So this first capture and disposal of an uncooperative space object represents an extremely challenging achievement.”

ESA officials signed a contract with ClearSpace on Nov 13. to complete the safe deorbiting of a payload adapter launched aboard the second flight of the Arianespace Vega rocket in 2013.

Unlike traditional ESA contracts that involve the agency procuring and coordinating the mission, ClearSpace-1 is a contract to purchase a service: the safe removal of a piece of space debris. ESA officials said they intend this mission to help establish a new commercial sector led by European industry.

The 86 million euros supplied by ESA will be supplemented with an additional 24 million euros ClearSpace is raising from commercial investors. Approximately 14 million euros of the privately-raised funding will be utilized for the mission, while the remaining 10 million will be set aside for contingencies, ESA spokesperson Valeria Andreoni told SpaceNews.

In addition to the partial-purchase cost, ESA will supply key technology for the mission developed by the agency’s Clean Space initiative as part of its Active Debris Removal/In-Orbit Servicing project. The technology to be supplied includes advanced guidance, navigation and control systems, vision-based AI, and the robotic arms to capture the target object.

The 112-kilogram Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (Vespa) to be retrieved is located in orbit around Earth in an orbit of approximately 801 by 664 kilometers. The object was selected because it is the approximate size and weight of a small satellite, an initial target market for ClearSpace’s debris-removal service.

The 500-kilogram ClearSpace-1 chaser spacecraft is slated to be launched aboard a Vega-C rocket in 2025. The spacecraft features cameras, radar and LIDAR for navigation, and four articulating tentacles designed to capture the target object.

Once launched, the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft will be deployed into a 500-kilometer orbit for commissioning and testing. The spacecraft will then be raised to the target orbit for rendezvous and capture. Although much of this process will be automated, a series of go/no go points will lead up to capture.

After the target object has been captured, the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft will drag itself and its payload into a destructive orbit to burn up in the atmosphere.

ClearSpace CEO Luc Piguet said following the completion of ClearSpace-1, the company plans to undertake a series of increasingly ambitious follow-on missions. The company’s goal is to get to the point where a single spacecraft can capture multiple objects, which would reduce costs thus making the service more affordable.

ClearSpace has been in contact with a number of satellite constellation operators including OneWeb and Iridium, Piquet said. However, the company has yet to receive any commitments for its service.

The 86 million euros in funding for ClearSpace-1 was allocated during the Space19+ Ministerial Council held in Seville, Spain a year ago. The funding was led by Switzerland as the home nation of ClearSpaceSA, the primary contractor, with the United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal, Poland and Sweden as other major contributors.

Andrew Parsonson is based in Valetta, Malta, and has been covering the space industry since 2017.