back to article ESA trumpets 'world's first space debris removal' with 4-armed junk botherer

The European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned a mission to remove an item of debris from orbit as the space around Earth gets progressively more cluttered. Trumpeting a "world's first", ESA is procuring the mission as a service contract from a consortium led by Swiss startup ClearSpace. Launch is planned for 2025 and the …

  1. Jay Lenovo
    Paris Hilton

    Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

    (Sigh).. Is it too much to ask for frickin' tractor beams already?

    Throw me a bone here

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

      The problem is that faster satellites get stuck behind the slow moving tractor beams and it causes orbit rage.

    2. devTrail

      Re: Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

      It is not necessary. Current technology could be used the other way around, I mean a pusher beam. The beam could hit the junk to slow it down in that part of the orbit where it accelerates. In this way orbit after orbit it would get closer to the Earth until it would fall down.

      1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

        Re: Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

        If the "pusher" was a solar powered mechanical device, then the pushing satellite could gain velocity while slowing down the junk satellite. Essentially using the junk satellite as propulsion mass to move to a higher orbit in search of more junk.

    3. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

      The sad part is that by far the best way to remove orbital debris is actually with giant frickin' laser beams. Even with atmospheric distortion, the power and focus required is well within the capability of commercially available laser systems. Really big junk would take a while to deorbit, but it's far better at getting rid of the much more numerous smaller stuff than all the silly ideas about multi-armed robots and shooting nets at things. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty much politically impossible, since no-one wants to be the first one to build a system capable of untraceably knocking absolutely any target out of orbit.

      1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

        Re: Conventional clean-up is extraordinarily expensive

        > "since no-one wants to be the first one to build a system capable of untraceably knocking absolutely any target out of orbit."

        Everyone wants to build such a system (probably working on it now) but no one wants the other guy to know about it.


    Chill guys

    It's just marketing. You have to put "World's first" followed by three or more words picked almost at random from rest of press release.

    Pity the poor Kiwis. They are never first at anything so all of their marketing bumf contains phrases like "Biggest/fastest/highest/awesomist whatever-it-is in Southern Hemisphere!"

    If they ever start launching rockets Woomera was there first.

    No kiwi icon? What's with you guys?

    1. iron Silver badge

      Re: Chill guys

      > If they ever start launching rockets Woomera was there first.

      Like Rocket Lab have been doing since 2017? (and testing rockets in NZ since 2009!) Famously they have launched so many Electron rockets from NZ that they've run out of fingers to count them on. They are even mentioned in the article.

    2. Spherical Cow Silver badge

      Re: Chill guys

      "Pity the poor Kiwis. They are never first at anything"

      Aw come on, they were first to use a whistle when refereeing a sportsball game. The world has never been the same since!

  3. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    perhaps one day

    someone will finally perfect a way to use something akin to a tethered tarpaulin or giant "Hefty bag" to begin clearing up some of the smaller debris as well.

    1. HildyJ Silver badge

      Re: perhaps one day

      How about a space vacuum?

      Maybe less Spaceballs and more Spamba.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: perhaps one day

        Will a vacuum cleaner work in a vacuum?

        1. IGotOut Silver badge

          Re: perhaps one day

          "Will a vacuum cleaner work in a vacuum?"

          Yes, but it may end up destroying the universe.

          1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

            Re: perhaps one day

            "Will a vacuum cleaner work in a vacuum?"

            A vacuum cleaner will clean a vacuum, Shirley?

  4. JetSetJim Silver badge

    Four armed junk botherer

    Soon to be appearing in a hi-tech pron flick?

  5. Daniel von Asmuth

    ESA trumpets it trumps NASA

    Lets make the universe clean again. Boyan Slat for president of the Evil Union!

  6. vogon00

    Less bang for your more bucks?

    Now, this may be a little contentious, but it strikes me that it is becoming time to do something about the amount of junk floating around up there - not from an 'eco' point of view, but one of global risk (We absolutely depend on the the contents of the 'space segment' for more and more as time goes on - Satellite TV, navigation, communication, weather forecasting etc. etc,. mersum premite).

    I am relatively uneducated re space and orbital operations*, but even I can appreciate the amount of damage done by being struck by something of low mass but with a significant relative velocity (The often quoted 'chip of paint' example) or something with a decent mass (100Kg, taken from the article text) impacting something at an entirely achievable 500Km/H differential velocity.

    Anyone know of a published study that comes up with a *realistic* probability of a catastrophic Kessler-like event occurring?

    Lets assume there *is* a risk of the Kessler syndrome becoming a thing - how would we cope if we lost most of the functions/services in the space segment at the moment AND were not able to leave the planet due to not being able to navigate through the resulting debris field. [ Obligatory Ref. :-) ]

    OK, that's the problem. I like solutions, so what about this:

    Every item of flight hardware that remains in orbit MUST be launched with a physically attached but entirely separate/autonomous thruster system (not necessarily high thrust!) with it's own mesh network/repeater communications system to cover failure of the hosting platform (Can't communicate with main platform - fine, de-orbit with the autonomous thruster, or the reverse). It must also have an end-of life plan that results in it's removal from space, not just shoving it into a parking orbit along with lots of other redundant cruft leaving a 'critical mass' of accident-waiting-to-happen.

    Having one job to do, I bet these extra boosters can be standardised and low cost, at least compared with the TCO for launching and operating the parent platform.

    Think of nuclear fission : It only works once things are densely packed enough to sustain the chain reaction, but boy, when it happens the results are interesting. Removing end-of-life platforms = less density = less risk = acceptable risk.

    Nice idea, I think, but then I probably don't know what I'm talking about, and I'm not paying the bill (Unless the Kessler thing does happen, then we *all* get to cough up!)

    *And in other things : 'mersum premite' comes to you courtesy of Google Translate.....

    1. Alister

      Re: Less bang for your more bucks?


      I am relatively uneducated re space and orbital operations*

      I bet you're really good at the shouting and throwing people out of airlocks though...

      1. defiler

        Re: Less bang for your more bucks?

        And poetry.

        1. vogon00

          Re: Less bang for your more bucks?

          I'm going to behave like most large corporate PR departments*, and point out that you are misinformed - Vogon poetry is actually superb :-)

          *Bonus upvote waiting for the 1st person to guess the name of the brand I'm thinking of here...

          1. Alister

            Re: Less bang for your more bucks?

            The Sirius Cybernetics Corp?

        2. Sanguma

          Re: Less bang for your more bucks?

          NOOOOO! Don't get him started!!! He'll counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor again .... oooohh, those simile dumpers!

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Less bang for your more bucks?

      It doesn't even take a thruster. A system that launches a long conductive wire can deorbit a small satellite that isn't too high up. In any system, there needs to be good management of the decaying orbit. Something that could be a problem if Elon's Starlink puts up the 30,000 sats they've been approved for into low orbit.

  7. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    Debris surrounding Uranus is worse

    1. Afernie

      Commencin' Operation Knapdarloch in een, twaa, three...

    2. Alister

      Ah, that'll be the cling-ons

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wouldn't it make more sense

    To build some sort of modular satellite, that can deploy a few hundred small rockets with nets/arms/whatever to grab stuff? It can sidle up alongside some debris, release one of the small rockets which grabs the debris then fires the rocket to descend into the atmosphere where it can burn up. Then it moves on to the next piece of debris.

    One launch per piece of debris isn't going to be cost effect, no matter how cheap you think SpaceX can someday make launches.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Wouldn't it make more sense

      Getting multiple captures per mission will be tough. Satellites are placed in orbit that are calculated to be as far as possible (when possible) from other stuff in space. Space is pretty big according to the HGTTG so it takes a lot of Delta V to get from one piece of junk to the next.

      If each launch of a robotic Hoover puts more small debris into space that can't be tracked, that's sort of a big problem too. They are always finding dings on ISS when outside working on stuff that hadn't been seen before.

      1. Sanguma

        Re: Wouldn't it make more sense

        actually, it'd make more sense to launch a set of space debris de-orbiters in micro-satellite package form and size. Say about a hundred for a particular orbit or related orbits, with enough fuel calculated to get them to the particular space debris they're programmed for and then de-orbit them. Most medium-lift launchers would be able to lift to orbit that many micro-satellites.

  9. TrumpSlurp the Troll

    Space Nets

    I like the idea.

    They only have to move a little slower relative to a debris cloud and the debris throws itself in. No chasing.

    In fact, space spiders would be even better..

    Spin a multi-directional web and wait for stuff to bumble into it.

    Make up a bundle of rubbish and fire it Earthward as reaction mass to gain a bit more delta v.

    Hmmm....a light sail could potentially act as propulsion and a net.

    Now trying to remember how a light sail avoids being shredded by all the debris in a solar system.

  10. Milton

    Missions for mini-sats?

    Some trends coming together:

    * CPU power in a small light volume

    * Sensor and comm tech, likewise

    * Ever-cheaper launch of oodles of mass-produced small satellites

    —so why not have an international competition to design and engineer the smallest possible satellite capable of:

    * Being given a target spec and/or image and/or position

    * Pootling off to find said target

    * Joining to the target (glue? sticky foam? space web/net? physically drilling an attachment point, even?)

    * Applying gentle but steady thrust, over weeks or perhaps even months, to de-orbit the target and itself

    * Largely autonomous, except for attachment and trajectory-setting

    Some clever bugger will probably come up with a <100kg device to tick all the boxes. If SpaceX can mass-produce internet orbital routers, this is surely possible? And economies of scale will render it affordable ... he said, hopefully.

    You might even build a bigger version specifically designed to lift some high-orbit items up into the Graveyard Orbit. The tricky stuff would seem (to me ) to be (a) political acceptability, therefore international so no one worries about skulduggery, and (b) the attachment technology: how you safely and remotely attach a little engine to a satellite so you can reliably push it where you want it to go.

    All work to be funded by space powers based on the mass of rubbish they've so far left up there ...?

    As for RoI, there's not only the value of not having millions of bits of debris whizzing around up there, there's also what we'll earn about remote, semi-autonomous space operations, potential asteroid capture etc.

    What''s not to like?

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