Swiss startup ClearSpace wins ESA contract to deorbit Vega rocket debris

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency signed a debris-removal contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace tasking the company with deorbiting a substantial piece of a Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013. 

The mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, is slated to launch in 2025 to capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram Vespa payload adapter an Arianespace Vega left in orbit after deploying ESA’s Proba-V remote-sensing satellite.

ClearSpace will lead a consortium of European companies in building a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture debris and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere. 

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” ESA Director General Jan Woerner said in a news release. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

ESA estimates the total mission will cost 117 million euros ($129 million) to complete, according to spokesperson Erika Verbelen.

Luc Piguet, co-founder and chief executive of ClearSpace, said the ESA funding covers spacecraft development and launch costs. 

Piguet said ESA allocated 70 million euros covering the first three years of the program, consistent with how the agency’s ministerial budget process works. Since ministerials occur every three years, the agency’s 22 member states will discuss funding the remainder of the mission in 2022, he said. 

ClearSpace is now in the process of finalizing the consortium of partners that will build the debris removal spacecraft, Piguet said. ClearSpace will lead the design, while its consortium partners build the spacecraft, he said. 

Piguet said ClearSpace aims to launch its spacecraft, so far unnamed, in late 2024 or early 2025. ESA funding requires the mission launch on a European rocket, he said. 

Piguet said the spacecraft will have a “high level of autonomy” and should weigh less than 400 kilograms. The company is leaning towards chemical propulsion for the first spacecraft, but future models could sport a mix of chemical and electric thrusters, he said. 

ESA said the simple, conical shape of a Vespa payload adapter makes it an ideal first target before progressing to larger, more difficult missions. 

The Vespa payload adapter’s 100-kilogram mass in on par with that of many smallsats. Planet’s 15 SkySat satellites each weigh around 120 kilograms, and OneWeb’s planned megaconstellation of 650 communications satellites each weigh roughly 150 kilograms, for example. 

ESA and ClearSpace plan to launch the debris-removal spacecraft into a 500-kilometer orbit for testing and commissioning. Once those steps are complete, the spacecraft will climb to the payload adapter’s 800-kilometer by 660-kilometer orbit, capture the object, and pull it into the atmosphere so that it burns up on reentry. 

Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s Clean Space initiative, said the agency will develop guidance, navigation and control technologies, plus rendezvous and debris-capture methods that will be applied to the ClearSpace-1 mission. 

Piguet said that while this first mission will destroy both the debris and the servicer spacecraft, future plans call for servicers that could deorbit multiple objects without also destroying themselves. 

ClearSpace is comprised of a core team in Switzerland of around nine people, he said, plus some staff in the U.K. and Germany. Next year the company should grow to around 25 people, he said. 

ClearSpace has raised close to 2.3 million Swiss francs ($2.3 million) through a mix of investors and grants, Piguet said. 

ClearSpace spun out of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne university in 2017, having worked since 2012 on an academic mission to deorbit SwissCube, a cubesat launched in 2009. Piguet said the company is still interested in deorbiting SwissCube if that initiative gets funded, but is now focused on its ESA mission.