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SPACE

Europe to send 'garbage truck' into orbit on space junk clean-up mission

ClearSpace's €86 million retrieval device is expected to be launched into orbit in 2025.
ClearSpace's €86 million retrieval device is expected to be launched into orbit in 2025. © ESA / CLEARSPACE SA / HANDOUT / MAXPPP

The European Space Agency has signed off on a mission first: to launch a "garbage truck" into space with the purpose of helping to clear the Earth’s orbit of dangerous debris.

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The Swiss start-up ClearSpace is hoping to send a satellite-sized claw device to intercept a 100kg fragment of an old European Vega rocket, called Vespa, left over from a launch in 2013.

The €86 million retrieval device, to be fired into orbit in 2025, will mark the planet’s first-ever clean-up mission. It’s hoped that subsequent missions will then be able to capture more challenging pieces of debris.

The ESA said that it would provide "key expertise" and funding for the mission, while ClearSpace would cover the rest of the cost through commercial investors.

Debris hazard

Vespa, which has been spinning around in orbit at an altitude of 660 to 800 kilometres, is among some 20,000 monitored pieces of space junk that’s put working satellites – including the International Space Station – at increased risk of collision.

Hurtling around the planet at speeds upwards of 28,000 kilometres per hour, even small pieces of debris wield a hugely destructive force. With some 100 launches happening every year, the issue of space debris is becoming increasingly urgent.

"The need is clear for a 'tow truck' to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region," said ClearSpace CEO Luc Piguet, in a quote on the ESA’s website.

After their galactic rendezvous, the plan is for both Vespa and the ClearSpace-1 claw to burn up when they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

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