back to article European Space Agency will launch giant claw that drags space junk to its doom

The European Space Agency has formalised its plan to dispose of space junk by using an orbiting claw to grab an old bit of rocket before dragging both the claw and the junk to a fiery doom. The agency announced the plan in late 2019 when it revealed it had asked Swiss startup ClearSpace to fully scope the mission. The …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

    so materials could be collected and potentially reused rather then just burning up in atmosphere.

    Cost to orbit has always been a major design factor in space engineering, having some "free materials" when you have plentiful energy for processing would mean less cost generally and space recycling has great potential for science discovery as well as sounding cool and green.

    Even just reforming metals into sheets for would be interesting and useful hell you could even use it for reaction mass

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

      Well another consideration is where you found these recyclables and the side effects of that neighborhood. See this article "Ultrapure copper for an ultrasensitive dark matter detector" where because of cosmic radiation and such, they had to mine, refine, build, ship, and bury copper quickly before it picked up too much residual radiation effects.

      To re-use in space for anything beyond basic struts you'd have to melt down and purify everything. That would be interesting to do in weightless conditions! Spinning refineries might make some people below them nervous? :-)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

        The stuff they are going to look at picking up is all going to be within van allen belts where concentrations and relative velocities are going to optimal for recovery. Outside of say LEO or GEO then cost in terms of reaction mass becomes more of an issue so optimal is near where they are going to process it.

        There is also a lot of high speed junk flying around due to antisatallite missle tests, where they intentionally blew stuff up. To my mind those responsible should either be paying for recovery or be made to do it themselves given that this junk is limiting future satallite deployment as well as endangering existing stuff including the ISS

      2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

        "Ultrapure copper for an ultrasensitive dark matter detector"

        Any day now it'll turn up in speaker cables. Probably with connectors plated in gold mined from an asteroid.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

      a set of satellites with a net might be more effective, catch as much as you can and then dispose of it in a similar way...

      But this is a good start in the right direction. I hope it is highly successful.

      1. NiceCuppaTea

        Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

        Or even better, so we dont end up with more particulate matter in our air you know that we breathe and would quite like to not contain stuff that our bodies dont like, you could send them on a course to the sun. Doesnt matter if it take 400 years to get there or whatever, just put it on that course and forget about it.

        1. Antonius_Prime

          Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

          De-orbit to Luna.

          That way, when we get back there, we have readily-ish available materials for building / landing sites.

          And unless there's anything else up there, we won't screw up the environment there.

          1. Anonymous Coward

            Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

            Again, Δv kills you: the Δv to LEO is 9-10 km/s, from LEO to Lunar surface is anouther 6.5 km/s or so.

        2. Anonymous Coward

          Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

          The Δv from Earth's surface to LEO (where most of these things live) is in the range 9-10 km/s. The Δv from LEO to the Sun is about 30 km/s. 'Sending something on a course to the Sun' from LEO is really expensive. The only practical way of doing it (which I think is possible even though it is somewhat counterintuitive) would be solar sails.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            It's actually less costly (from an energy point) to send things deeper into the solar system so that it they assume a highly elliptical orbit about the sum. A delta-v change can then be made when furthest away from the sun (where the velocity is low) so that the low point of the orbit intersects the sun - which means a relatively small delta-v change makes a significant change to the velocity vector.

        3. M7S

          Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

          @ NiceCuppa Tea

          We dont know what we dont know, but in a couple of centuries a policy like this might be found to have an adverse effect in the same way as dumping our waste into the vastness of the oceans hasnt really turned out well.

        4. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

          Every day about 100 tons of asteroid dust burns up in our atmosphere, which is roughly the mass that we launch into space per year, and of course, most of what we launch doesn't come down.

          While 100 tons per day does sound like a lot, the thing is, the Earth's atmosphere is really big. So while you've probably breathed in some asteroid particulates over your life, it's probably done less to you than standing in a room with a candle for five minutes.

          That's why organisms on Earth don't really have to worry about anything entering the atmosphere, except the rare occasions when it's big enough to reach the ground.

    3. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

      Trouble is... material cost is bugger all

      We made some frame parts for <cough cough splutter splutter>, the raw material (aerospace grade alluminium) cost us about $100 each.

      The cost in machining/plating/remachining /replating it to space specifications was about $1000 each, followed by the inspections/reports/certificates etc etc which added another $500.

      Then off to the customer to be assembled/baked/shaked/frozen/ and vibrated to death before being lobbed in the ocean because the rocket failed on lift off (yes we had to do it all again).

      When NASA/SpaceX says the cost of a space craft is 500 million, you'll find the actual materials used will be way less than a million and the cost is all in building the damned thing... so its pretty much scrap value only...

      PS I suspect someone at ESA has been playing kerbal space program again, because theres a module in ther called 'the claw' used for grabbing other space ships...

    4. Dimmer

      Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

      I know some of you can do the math on this to see if it can be done.

      Send a device with a cable a mile long. Send the cable out sideways to grapple the junk. Then as the device is circling the junk, reel in the cable using solar power. Then release towards the next object. You will have either increased the speed of your device or decreased the speed of the junk.

    5. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

      Re: They should have gone with the James bond scoop design

      > even use it for reaction mass

      Yes, use the junk satellite as reaction mass to get to the next piece of space junk. Pass close enough to the junk to give it a good mechanical shove sending the junk into a decaying orbit and the orbital janitor on to the next piece of junk.

  2. Giles C Silver badge

    Doesn’t seem economic to me.

    You spend millions getting a claw to orbit pick up one piece of junk and then burn it up in the atmosphere.

    Ok this is a proof of concept but surely you would want to make it a bit more useful.

    Surely it would be better to collect multiple pieces of junk, and then fling it into the atmosphere (attach a small engine?) so the claw can be sent off to pick something else, or as the first post says go for the James Bond scoop design.

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      I suspect that the problem is that matching position and velocity with an orbiting object costs significant amounts of fuel. It's difficult to do that multiple times.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        And I suspect a lot of armchair space engineers will come up with "obvious" & "better" ways that the space boffins just have not considered.

        (And in this context "not considered" actually means "They barely gave a thought to as it just won't work.")

        1. LogicGate

          While fulfilling your requirements in a way you may not have thought of, here are my 2 pennies worth of improvements:

          The issue is fuel mass, not energy.

          Send a vehicle up to the junk. Attach a tether. slowly fly away from the item while releasing tether so not to pull at the junk. Take care not to tangle the tether.

          When sufficiently far away, electrically winch in the tether. When sufficient winching speed has been built up, release the connection between tether and junk, and maneuver out of the way so that you will not hit the space junk, which is now in a deorbiting orbit. Do it right, and your new orbit may head towards a new and interesting piece of space junk. The junk that you just de-orbited is your fuel mass. your solar panels provide the fuel energy.

          I am sure that this approach has been considered.. However, you will have to learn to walk before you learn to play space bola, and this is a first baby step.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Delta v

            You would need to get a major change in velocity to get something to de-orbit. For example, throwing a ball at 100m/s from the ISS directly towards the earth will have virtually no effect on it's orbit (in fact, it will be higher than the ISS at times).

            1. LogicGate

              Re: Delta v

              That is the nice thing about space... there is a lot of space for a lot of tether.. It all adds up.

              ..but you are probably right in that in high orbits, the required delta v may be too high for any kind of significant orbital change without tangling up the winch mechanism.

            2. A.P. Veening Silver badge

              Re: Delta v

              You would need to get a major change in velocity to get something to de-orbit. For example, throwing a ball at 100m/s from the ISS directly towards the earth will have virtually no effect on it's orbit (in fact, it will be higher than the ISS at times).

              Don't throw it towards the earth, throw it back, against the orbit. That will slowly de-orbit it.

          2. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. 0laf

        That'll be why there is that company (in El Reg recently) that has developed electrostatic ribbons (I'm science mangling) that could be extended at EOL and the electric charge was enough to increase drag and bring the sat down much earlier.

        For old stuff you'd need a big transporter tug with lots of little rockets that could be attached to dud sats. Sounds feasible on the ground but probably not given how big space is, even in near Earth orbit.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          A lot of thought has been applied to space junk clean up. Whoever figured out a “cheap” simple way will “clean up” in more ways than one.

          So much brainstorming has been done already.

    2. Headley_Grange Silver badge


      I agree that it seems to be a bit of a waste, but I think the economics are more based on the potential damage that the junk could do rather than the value of the materials used and recovered.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      The problem is that this means carting more mass to orbit: you need to lift both enough fuel to manoeuvre between multiple pickups, and enough fuel (and the engine) to change the orbit of each thing you pick up into one with a perigee well within the atmosphere ('just flinging' is not going to work). The rocket equation and orbital mechanics constrains you quite a lot.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That is more likely to become practical when something like SpaceX's Starship gets into service. One variant will have a 1000m3 payload bay and they can be refuelled in orbit (from another Starship variant). With enough refuelling, that can carry 150T to the moon, so should be able to catch anything.

      The real change with Starship is the booster and orbiter are both fully reusable, with Elon Musk saying they may be able to get launch costs down to about $2M (yes, not $2B). Even if they only get it down to $20M, that's still a lot cheaper than anything else that's currently available. At $2M, that's only $20,000 a seat to LEO for the 100 man crew version...

      BTW - first test of the orbiter prototype is scheduled for 30th Nov. Elon expects this to crash and burn - but that's just development ;-)

      1. Muscleguy Silver badge

        And of course he wants to offer rocket trips instead of long haul plane flights. Or is that beardy? Anyway Starship looks a bit like a space plane which can get people to the other side of the earth quickly.

    5. Fred Dibnah

      Wall-E in space.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RE: Doesn’t seem economic to me.

      Maybe after they find all the gotchas this could be done by sending a dozen or more mini claws up to de-orbit lots of stuff per launch. If they are small enough they could re-engineeer the Starlink launchers to do something space friendly.

  3. AMBxx Silver badge

    Military applications?

    Oops, sorry wrong satellite.

  4. KBeee Silver badge


    I'm still waiting for Planetes to come true.

  5. Howard Sway Silver badge

    €86m will only cover some of the mission's cost

    It is as yet unknown just how many more €1m euro coins they'll have to put into the slot before the claw grabber successfully retrieves a prize.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: €86m will only cover some of the mission's cost

      Nah, Blofeld has all the necessary money

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "a space garbage collection business"

    At $86 million per object, I don't see how that can sustain a business.

    1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

      Re: "a space garbage collection business"

      If the junk satellite is threatening your $100B space station, it might be worth a try.

      1. Jon 37

        Re: "a space garbage collection business"


        Newly launched objects are supposed to be designed so they can be deorbited or put in an out-of-the-way "graveyard orbit" at their end of life, with a 90-something percent probability. If they fail, or otherwise don't get cleaned up, then ... there's not much we can do about it. Space cleanup is currently not possible.

        If space cleanup was possible, even at $100m a go, then we could pass laws requiring all newly launched objects to have "cleanup insurance". If they don't get cleaned up, then their insurance company has to pay for a cleanup mission. That would provide a source of funding for companies like this.

  7. Silverburn

    The swiss

    Not content with keeping their country spotless, they're cleaning up space now too.

    1. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: The swiss

      i went to a science conference in Switzerland once, in Thurgau. We had a trip to a vineyard which included dinner. The bus there went through a pine forest. There was a guy sweeping pine needles off the road . . .

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The swiss

        Clearly they were the wrong kind of pine needles

  8. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

    ESA: the garbage man of space

    I find ESA's space projects boring and uninspiring. And the ones that are, such as ExoMars, they can't pull off.

    Since the Schiaparelli EDM crashed due to a software error the chances of the real thing reaching the surface in one piece are slim at best, a decade of effort will therefore likely be wasted.

    Why is ESA aspiring to become the garbage man of space? Most likely because of the giant EnviSat which they pushed far beyond its design limits and were therefore unable to dispose of properly. They feel deservedly guilty about littering space with this 5000kg piece of junk.

  9. Man inna barrel Bronze badge

    What about the small pieces of junk?

    Little bits of junk are too small to detect and pick up with a grabber, but might still do fatal damage, because of enormous relative velocities. Imagine an M3 nut traveling at a relative velocity of thousands of MPH to the target. A good armour piercing projectile, I would have thought. I imagine that satellite orbits are designed not to intersect in a dangerous manner, but once a dead satellite and its bits can no longer maintain the safe orbit, they end up intersecting with active satellites orbits, possibly at some random vector with enormous relative velocity.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm no expert so this might be completely stupid..

    But couldn't you put a satellite up that basically is a big electromagnet? Pick up all the bits of debris close to one orbit, adjust orbit, pick up more, then deorbit and burn up? Cleaning up a chunk rather than just 1 bit?

    1. Spiz

      ^ this guy/gal satellites

    2. ShadowDragon8685

      It is pretty stupid;

      Firstly, not everything up there may be ferromagnetic, meaning a fuck-off gigantor XL electromagnet would have fuck-all effect on them.

      But the real problems with using a magnet like that:

      Firstly, a magnet like that WILL alter the trajectory of ferrous debris in its orbit. It will not have much control over where or how these trajectory alterations happen, but they will be pretty impressive - and uncontrolled.

      Secondly, objects near a magnet do not magically adhere to the magnet. If an object is going too fast, on the wrong trajectory to be captured, you won't actually capture the object, you'll just change its trajectory, potentially exacerbating the problem.

      Thirdly, magnets do not magically become one with whatever adheres to them. If you alter the trajectory of incoming space junk such that it intersects the magnet, you're going to potentially shatter both the magnet and the junk, vastly exacerbating the problem.

      The orbital magnet would only work on a very small subset of space junk - that which is already basically on the same orbit, such that you're effectively docking with it anyway.

      Now, COULD these objections be overcome? Yes. By no known technologies. If we're positing unknown technologies, you could simply sweep the skies clean with a science fiction tractor beam.

  11. JCitizen

    Not much time...

    Specially designed nets seem the best - maybe some links will help explain.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022