Work has just begun on building the first satellite that can capture and deorbit space debris. Making the space activities more sustainable is a huge responsibility - one that the European Space Agency has entrusted to EPFL startup ClearSpace.
As the ink dries on the contract of the Preliminary Autorization to Proceed with the European Space Agency (ESA), the ClearSpace-1 mission is getting under way. One short year ago, ESA selected EPFL startup ClearSpace to lead a European consortium that will develop technologies to capture and deorbit space debris. It is an unprecedented decision in many ways. First, in a sector dominated by government agencies and other major industry players, selecting a startup for such a role is unusual. Furthermore, this is the first time a space agency has selected and funded a program to recover one of the many objects left in space. The consortium’s first task will be to capture part of the upper stage of the Vega rocket - which ESA has left in 2013 and is currently orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 660 kilometers - and ensure it re-enters the atmosphere in a controlled manner. ClearSpace-1 is scheduled for launch in 2025.
The startup, which is responsible for planning the project, has been very busy over the past year, and its workforce has quadrupled from five to more than 20. Eight countries are involved in the project: Switzerland, the UK, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden. Microsoft is also providing support through its Global Social Entrepreneurship program, and ClearSpace is still looking for additional sponsors for the mission. Since the start of the year, the company has been working hard to reorganize its industrial team, assessing the know-how it needs, hiring the right people and coming up with a detailed proposal, which ESA has just approved.
"We launched a call for tenders, and more than 50 companies from across Europe applied," says Luc Piguet, CEO of ClearSpace and an EPFL alumnus with an Electrical Engineering degree. "We selected around 20 partners from all of the participating countries, including four companies here in Switzerland, as well as EPFL, the Vaud School of Management and Engineering (HEIG-VD) and the University of Bern’s Astronomical Institute (AIUB)." The ClearSpace-1 team has until March 2021 to design the satellite, plan the mission, define all the sub-systems, and so on.
The startup is the result of a long-term project that began in 2012 at the EPFL Space Center (eSpace). Already, the aim of the initial CleanSpace-1 initiative was to develop technologies to capture and deorbit obsolete space objects - such as out-of-use satellites, rocket stages, parts of solar panels, and loose nuts and bolts - that had been put into orbit over the past 60 years and that are now filling up the space immediately above the Earth. These objects orbit our planet at a speed of 28,000 kmph, making them dangerous projectiles for working satellites and astronauts at the international space station. That’s why, in addition to deorbiting future satellites at the end of their useful life, space agencies need to find ways to get rid of the space satellites and debris already up there.