ESA seeks global adoption of “zero debris” policy

by

WASHINGTON — The head of the European Space agency says he hopes to have a “zero debris” policy for European spacecraft in place in the next few years, an approach he says he would like to see expanded globally.

Speaking during a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 19, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said he was in discussions with the agency’s member states about a policy that would require satellites to be deorbited immediately after the end of their missions.

“We want to establish a zero debris policy, which means if you bring a spacecraft into orbit you have to remove it,” he said. “This policy should be in place in a couple of years.”

Aschbacher has previously discussed setting up such a policy, with a goal of having it in place by the end of the decade. “By 2030, we aim to consistently and reliably remove all European satellites from valuable orbits around Earth immediately after they cease operation,” he said in a video in June 2022.

In his remarks in Davos, he suggested that the zero debris policy be expanded beyond Europe. “I’m working now with my governments in Europe, and hopefully this will be adopted universally because we need to protect our orbits for our own safety and the safety of spacecraft and astronauts.”

Current international guidelines, adopted by many countries, require only that satellites be deorbited no more than 25 years after the end of their mission. There has been discussion about shortening that timeframe, including an order approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in September 2022 that will require spacecraft licensed by that agency or seeking U.S. market access to deorbit within five years.

Aschbacher cited efforts to clean up orbital debris funded by ESA, including ClearSpace-1, a mission that will deorbit a Vega payload adapter left in low Earth orbit. ClearSpace, the Swiss startup which won the ESA contract for that mission, raised $29 million Jan. 19 to advance work on the spacecraft for launch in 2026.

Shedding light on Solaris

In addition to discussing space debris and ESA’s other space exploration activities, Aschbacher highlighted a new agency effort to study the technological and economic feasibility of space-based solar power.

ESA secured 60 million euros ($65 million) at its ministerial council meeting in November for Solaris, which will conduct a feasibility study of generating solar power in space and beaming it back to Earth.

“Solaris is something quite amazing,” Aschbacher said. Space-based solar power, he said, could address concerns about both climate change and energy independence, he suggested, if it is feasible.

“It’s very futuristic,” he acknowledged. “If it works — and I really put a big ‘if’ in the room here — if it works, it would be a huge improvement for climate change but also energy autonomy.”

He said that if the Solaris study does reach a favorable conclusion about the feasibility of space-based solar power, he would be willing to move ahead with a demonstration program of some kind. “This we will find out in two to three years, and then I could come with a major proposal.”

Other companies and organizations have also shown a renewed interest in space-based solar power, a concept that dates back more than a half-century. Northrop Grumman announced in December it had completed ground tests of technology for space-based solar power it plans to demonstrate in space in 2025 through a contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory. A privately funded project by the California Institute of Technology to test similar technologies launched Jan. 3 as a hosted payload on the Vigoride 5 tug by Momentus.

In May 2022, a NASA official said the agency’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy had started a short-term study to reevaluate the feasibility of space-based solar power and determine to what degree, if any, the agency should support new work on the topic. At the time, NASA planned to have the study completed by September, but as of January the agency has not published the report.