ClearSpace-1 will be the first spacecraft to target an actual abandoned piece of space junk, including debris left in orbit by decades of missions. The spacecraft has another goal — to establish a “new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal,” the statement says, following the general trend of opening up spaceflight to the private sector.
It follows in the footsteps of past test missions such as RemoveDEBRIS, which launched to the International Space Station in 2018 and deployed small dummy objects to capture in orbit. The spacecraft is tasked with collecting VESPA, a 120-kilogram payload adapter that was discarded in orbit during the 2013 launch of a Vega rocket. ClearSpace-1 will use a “Pac-Man system” to retrieve this spent rocket part, said Muriel Richard-Noca, the project manager for the mission, in a recent video explainer.
The Pac-Man analogy refers to ClearSpace-1’s strategy of enclosing a piece of junk within a containment structure, similar to how the arcade game character eats small dots. Once the spacecraft has captured the target with its four robotic legs, mission leads will command it to deorbit, or lose altitude, so that the debris can safely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Although the mission was contracted by ESA, which is a governmental space agency, ClearSpace is a commercial venture established by space debris experts at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. It is not the only company that has anticipated this burgeoning market. Astroscale, a Japanese company, is also on track to experiment with capturing and disposing of a 20-kilogram dummy payload next year, according to SpaceNews.
“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,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner, in Monday’s statement.
“That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue,” he added, stating that ESA will support these “essential new commercial services in the future.”