Swiss satellite being sent to clean up the mess in outer space


February 15, 2012

A depiction of CleanSpace One, closing in on an expired picosatellite

A depiction of CleanSpace One, closing in on an expired picosatellite

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NASA currently monitors approximately 17,000 pieces of space junk that are orbiting the earth at extremely high speeds. These odds and ends consist of things like dead satellites, spent rocket stages and parts that have broken off of spacecraft. As the amount of junk increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for functioning satellites to avoid colliding with it. When collisions do occur, the satellite is often destroyed, with the resulting debris further adding to the problem. Scientists from Swiss research institute EPFL, however, have decided that enough is enough - they're currently developing a small satellite known as CleanSpace One, which will be tasked with grappling expired satellites and pulling them back to Earth.

The first CleanSpace One prototype will, appropriately enough, be sent after one of two non-functioning Swiss satellites - the Swisscube picosatellite, or its cousin, the TIsat.

Once launched, CleanSpace One will have to match the target satellite's orbital plane of 630-750 kilometers (391-466 miles) above sea level. In order to do so, it will have to adjust its trajectory, using an ultra-compact motor that is still in development at EPFL.

Next, once it's within range of its quarry, it will have to grasp and stabilize it. This should prove challenging, as the dead satellite will be moving at 28,000 km/h (17,398 mph), and could be rotating. An appropriate gripping mechanism will need to be created, which EPFL states will be "inspired from a plant or animal example."

Finally, once CleanSpace One has captured its target, the two of them will head out of orbit and towards the earth, where they will both burn up in the atmosphere. So yes, the prototype will be going on a suicide mission, but a whole line of CleanSpace-inspired satellites are planned for the future, each one capable of capturing and destroying a different type of satellite.

The orbital rendezvous of CleanSpace One and one of the two picosatellites could be taking place within three to five years, depending on funding and availability of industrial partners.

More information is available in the video below.

Source: EPFL via Popular Science

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth


Kyle Baker

I would think sovereign nations will have take serious issue with them touching even a disabled/obsolete satellite not to mention at $5000 or so to put a Kilo into orbit this idea seems a wee bit wasteful.

Michael Gene

Theres a anime called "PlanetES", based entirely on this. Check the trailer, its a good series.

Brian Maxwell

does anyone else think that if the grappling device resembles an arcade claw machine as it does in the photo above they might as well give up the project now?


Lets see... the US has put most of the junk up there but the Swiss are willing to clean it up (somewhat). However, the US does nothing about it. (except continue to put more junk up there) What is wrong with this picture?


It seems to me that putting a satellite into a retro-grade orbit with a big electromagnet and ion engine would be more effective, especially against the smaller harder to see and avoid debris. .............................................................................................................................

re; tgongol

Lets see, four arms instead of three, appropriately sized for the target. Nope, no resemblance what so ever.


Star Wars here we come. How long before some rogue nation makes one to take another\'s satellite out of service? :-)


There sending more junk up there to clean up, clearly a reusable platform has to be used, not wasting flight after flight how many? 10 000 flights, this is ridiculous, how could they even think of this. What\'s going on? A reusable platform can shoot down satellites, or release and attach small rockets which guide the object down. Or in one go send atleast 20 such cleaning satellites.

Dawar Saify

re; Pres

The USofA has been working to minimize the new debris generated since the 1980s and has been looking for cost effective ways to remove debris from orbit.


Wasn\'t there a TV show back in the 70s based on this idea? Except they salvaged the satellites for money and parts.

Mark Keller

@ Pres, stop thinking we're the cause of the entire planet's problems. Read this and pipe-down: You better pray to God you don't have a smart phone, satellite tv, or use Google Maps.

Added to that: countries hire NASA and other agencies around all parts of the world to help with their research since they cannot afford an entire launch mission (understandably). Pay 1/32 of the cost to get all the information you wanted without paying billions because multiple nations chipped in, and you now have an affordable one-off space program. USA/NASA is only a small part of the entire missions sent up; funded by various people/countries. "What's wrong with this picture?" What's wrong is that everyone like YOU who takes a shot at America is just following a trend, riding the bandwagon, and never looks at their own life/country first. Just think if we said that our country will no longer be the "World Police" that everyone says we are, and no longer helped anyone ever again... THEN what would everyone say? I'm not saying my country is perfect, but the moment you think America is the worst place on Earth and responsible for everyone's problems and never bother to look at your own past, is the day you publicly prove your own ignorance.


@Mark Keller, yes, Quark.

I think this may space trash cleanup may be a bad idea. The space trash is our planetary shield. All that junk might be discouraging alien invaders from going into orbit around our planet. At least I would kind of worry if I was in orbit with all that stuff whizzing by.


Um - space is pretty big, and 3-dimensional. 17,000 is an absolutely miniscule number in comparison, not to mention, they know where all the junk is, so can plan to be sure to miss it anyhow.


Always assuming of course that the clean up wagon doesn\'t get hit by a flying object before completing its mission ...!

Facebook User

@ Mark Keller : Makr , I was thinking the same thing but I actually watched it. It was a cool series on T.V. and was written to be just believeable to entice a person\'s imagination. Here is a link: It was called \"Salvage 1 (TV series 1979)\" and starred Andy Griffith.

Jim Andrews

So they send up a satellite to clear debris from space to incude \"spent rocket stages\" using a multi-stage rocket. What happes to those spent stages? Do they send another satellite to grab those too?


How about a little correct information on the subject, the 17,000 peaces of space junk are items that are no longer functioning and generally larger than a softball. This size is about the smallest thing radars can track well enough to produce a usable orbit track. The number of objects grows rapidly as the size decreases below the minimum trackable size. By far the largest number of micro-meteoroids, as they are called, are paint chips less than 1/16 inch in diameter and few thousands of inch thick. There are millions if not billions of paint chips in orbit. I saw and looked over one of the panels from the NASA Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) that was retrieved after 6 years in orbit. It was deployed from the space shuttle in 1984 intending to be returned in about one year. Programatic delays and then the Challenger explosion in 1986 delayed retrieval.

Much to everyones amazement the outer surface of LDEF was nearly covered with impact craters. Material found in the craters reviled that most were caused by small paint chips. The 18 x 18 x 1/4 inch thick panel I saw about a hundred of craters. While none of them looked to be more than about 1/16 inch deep, inspecting the back side of the panel that was not exposed to space showed a few of the largest craters had a small pit on the other side. Despite appearances, the impact did not actually penetrate the 1/4 thick 6061 T6 aluminum alloy panel. What happened is that a small column of materiel shifted internally and caused a fragment to spall off the inner surface. Light was not visible through the \"hole\". I don\'t know if the damage would have allowed air to leak through.

This is the damage a paint chip that weighs about as much as a snowflake can do when it strikes something at a velocity greater than 17,500 mph. As additional items have be brought back from space it soon became clear why spacecraft are not quickly pulverized from the steady stream of dust sized particles. Unlike LDEF the exterior of most spacecraft is covered by Multi Layered Insolation blankets (MLI). When a dust grain strikes the outer most layer of MLI, it punches a tiny hole in it but is intern vaporized. Because the MLI has open space between the layers the energy from the impact spreads out and is dissipated before it penetrates the many layers of MLI. The solar panels on spacecraft cannot be covered with the protective MLI. It turns out that when a micro-meteorite impacts a solar cell it punches a small hole through the cell but does no damage beyond the crater so the cell continues to function normally.

The threat from something too small to track, the size of small screw or larger, weighing millions of times more than a paint chip is clear. Things this size will cause substantial damage if not completely destroy a spacecraft. This is one of the reasons the space shuttle is normally flown in orbit with the engines forward and belly up. This put the most vulnerable parts of the shuttle in the locations least likely to be hit, but this only reduces the risk by less than a factor of 10.

It is believed that the largest source of paint chips is a number of booster rockets, mostly soviet, that exploded in relatively high orbits. While the US had boosters accidentally explode, it is thought the soviets intentionally exploded spent boosters as a \"disposal\" method. Now that the risks from orbital debris is well known, no space program plans to abandoned space hardware in a condition where explosion is a possibility. To my knowledge, no buster or spacecraft has had an internal explosion in orbit for decades. However, there has been at least one confirmed anti satellite test explosion conducted by the US and a few suspected but unconfirmed Soviet anti satellite tests. These tests may have produced more small but lethal objects than all of the booster explosions.

The rules of how to run a \"clean\" space program are well known and followed buy all the space programs today. De-pressurize all propellent tanks at the end of life for the booster or spacecraft. When reasonably possible, de-orbit booster rockets after they have separated from the payloads. Design spacecraft so they can either use retro burns to de-orbit at the end of life or have the orbit naturally decay in a few tens of years or less. If the spacecraft cannot be de orbited, move it outside of the heavily used altitudes before being abandoned. Design all boosters and spacecraft systems so that deployments do not produce loose objects.

The idea of using a multi use platform to retrieve junk seems appealing but is inherently not possible. Objects that differ in orbit by only a few degrees pass each other at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. It requires so much fuel to change the plain a spacecraft is orbiting in that it is more cost effective to launch a separate mission to retrieve each object. The only exception to this is spacecraft that are flying as a formation in one orbit plane like the GPS spacecraft.

Dominic From NASA

re; Dominic From NASA

Magnetic dragging is not dependent on physical contact and great speed helps. While I doubt it would have effective on paint chips stranger things have happened.


How about just using one of the high powered lasers that exists today to burn all the debris to smithereens. it would be a lot cheaper and easier.

Denis Klanac

A few of things to think about. 1 The article is badly written and poor journalism at best. It starts off by stating "facts" that are irrelevant to the article and continues on that theme. 2 The Swiss are sending up another satellite to retrieve two other Swiss discarded satellites. 3 Did anybody read and understand what the article was supposed to be about? Because all the comments I read were focusing on the "red herring" introduction and theme, rather than on what the article was supposed to be about. Watch the video and it will fill in the missing details, which in case you missed it was about the Swiss cleaning up Swiss space junk.


I think consideration needs to be directed toward capture and recycle instead of capture and burn using atmospheric reentry.

Perhaps a solar furnace and 3D Printer technology could be used too recycle obsolete satellites into standardized construction parts for orbital platforms and large interplanetary ships, as well as repurpose any unused fuel.

Obsolete electronics can be recycled as part of an in orbit construction of electronic components.

In other words, why destroy, salvage it!

John Carman

Hmmm 2 things, MOST of the tracking is for objects 10cm and above.

There is a new USAF radar thingy going into operation soonish - that can track all objects down to about 2cm

I am not sure about ALL of this, but I'd hazard at a guess, that for every ONE 10cm sized chunk, there must be 50 - 100 or 500 smaller pieces down to 2cm in size.

As one of the leading researchers in the the space retrieval systems using magnetic and paramagnetic systems, I'd like to see all of the good gear kept up there and parked in a neutral orbit - because ALL of the material is really first rate alloys and composites.

I mean it's going to be like herding cats to make a common recycling yard, but I think that this would be a really good thing.

However, gathering up, all the really small material under 2cm - will be a really dedicated operation.

I think this is where space travel as a low earth orbit "daily event" will come into it's own.

Regular 20 day missions, micro booster engines, all the great stuff.... for both the great big satellites and all the small teeny bits.

Mr Stiffy

Space Flypaper. Something sticky which will stay sticky in hard vaccum and super low temperatures. It would also have to hold debris impacting it without generating any smaller debris. Perhaps something like those glue traps for rodents?

Things orbiting naturally want to turn their longest axis perpendicular to their orbit path. Use that natural effect to orient Space Flypaper satellites to catch the most junk. Once the satellite has its large sheets of gooey stuff so covered in debris there's no room for more, collect it for intact return or deorbit it to burn up on reentry.

Gregg Eshelman

@Mark Keller

Yes, it was called Salvage 1 and starred Andy Griffith. He developed a constant boost, reusable launch system that lofted a recovery vehicle. IMDB has a miniscule write up on it. There were 19 episodes. I loved the show.

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