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Rubbish removal satellite to be launched from an A300 jetliner

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September 16, 2013

Artist's concept of CleanSpace One approaching a satellite (Image: EPFL)

Artist's concept of CleanSpace One approaching a satellite (Image: EPFL)

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Back in the 1970s, there was a short-lived sitcom called Quark about an outer space rubbish collector. What was played for laughs back then may soon be a reality with the announcement that Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Swiss Space Systems (S3) have formed a partnership to launch the CleanSpace One satellite into orbit to collect space debris using a launch system that promises to be cheaper than using conventional techniques.

There are estimated to be more than 16,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth larger than 10 cm (3.9 in) in diameter. That’s doesn't amount to much in the vastness of space, but satellites tend to cluster in similar orbits and a satellite collision, such as occurred in 2009 between Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251, could cause this number to increase exponentially. If that happens, it would make space travel much more difficult and expensive.

There are many plans for making satellites less of a hazard to navigation. These approaches include installing microthrusters or solar sails as a way to plunge them back into the atmosphere or into deep space, but that still leaves the question of how to deal with the debris already up there, or which might be created inadvertently despite attempts to mitigate the problem.

The flight plan of the CleanSpace One mission (Image: EPFL)

One answer is the CleanSpace One satellite. Scheduled to launch in 2018, it’s under development by EPFL with the current version weighing in at a mere 30 kg (66 lb). It uses many off-the-shelf technologies and many key components have been developed with various partners, including the European Space Agency.

Equipped with thrusters, CleanSpace One is designed to rendezvous with a disabled satellite. Once on station, a claw reaches out, clamps on to the debris, and CleanSpace One pushes the debris and itself into the Earth’s atmosphere on a kamikaze dive. For it’s first test, it will rendezvous with a de-commissioned Swiss nanosatellite measuring only 10 cm (3.9 in) wide.

On September 10 EPFL entered into an agreement that made S3 of Payerne, Switzerland, the prime partner in the CleanSpace one project. S3 will invest CHF10 million (US$10.7 million) for the launch and CHF5 million (US$5.3 million) for assembling and testing the satellites and for command operations. S3’s contribution to the project, aside from money, is to provide a cheaper way to get CleanSpace One into orbit. To achieve this, the company has developed a variation on the piggyback method of launching satellites that handles payloads up to 250 kg (551 lb).

Artist's impression of SOAR in space (Image: S3)

The launch system uses the Suborbital Reusable Shuttle (SOAR), a small unmanned shuttle, taken aloft by an A300 jet airliner. At an altitude of about 10 km (33,000 ft), the SOAR is released and flies under its own power to an altitude of 80 km (263,000 ft). There it launches a rocket booster stage that flies to an altitude of 700 km (435 mi), where it releases its payload into orbit.

The advantage of this system is that all the parts, including satellites, have their own re-entry systems, have no need for exotic fuels, and the mission can be aborted up until the booster launch without losing the payload. On the whole, S3 claims that this reduces costs by a factor of four. S3 is taking responsibility for the launch of CleanSpace One as the first payload for the system.

“You can’t democratize space access without having a responsible attitude,” says Pascal Jaussi, CEO of Swiss Space Systems. “If we don’t deal with the problem of orbiting space debris and its accumulation, future generations’ access to space will be compromised.”

The video below outlines the new partnership between EPFL and S3.

Source: EPFL

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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14 Comments

Who's gonna define rubbish?

Taiko Jiao
17th September, 2013 @ 01:48 am PDT

Tailko Jiao

Anything in orbit around the planet that is no longer functioning or under power. Its not rocket science.

Richard Unger
17th September, 2013 @ 04:34 am PDT

Why doesn't the CleanSpace One push the dead satellite into the atmosphere thereby pushing himself to a higher orbit, ready for the next dead satellite? or does it?

Rob Tillaart
17th September, 2013 @ 04:50 am PDT

Because of the relative speeds and different orbits of the various items of space debris, it makes it very difficult to capture more than one item at a time. This solution looks very expensive if you can only capture one items at a time!

Franc
17th September, 2013 @ 05:29 am PDT

Good question, Taiko Jiao. Obviously it won't really look like those arcade game claws. They might work on a cubesat, but that's about it. They would be as ineffective against a bolt or wrench as they are against stuffed animals in a mall. A version large enough to bring down a real disabled satellite could also be viewed as an anti-satellite weapon.

The problem with space trash has always been ownership. You can only bring down your own trash, most of it isn't Swiss, and other countries would have to contract for this. How much would someone pay to 'return-and-burn' an old satellite? So far, not much. De-orbit propellant costs only, and sometimes only enough propellant for a parking orbit.

This might change if the orbits get so full that they want to replace an old junker bus-sized satellite with a new $200 million model in geosynchronous orbit, but I don't see that capability any time soon.

MBadgero
17th September, 2013 @ 05:33 am PDT

Absolute insanity. Until we deploy a space-net capable of capturing many pieces of debris and/or disabled whole devices (and either yanking them into decay or jettisoning them into space), we are only kidding ourselves. The second and probably more important item on the agenda is the fixing of responsibility for costs. The UN and WTO should be able to fix that up in short order, no matter what arguments are put forth by nations (and now private parties) re: the ownership of, necessity to and responsibility for removing space junk.

By the way, one launched recovery vehicle could certainly deploy more than one net, each with its own final thruster...and before anyone suggests that only too-heavy Kevlar would be strong enough to withstand variable speed impacts by various debris, think for a moment about both matching speeds and capturing slower velocity junk first.

Mirmillion
17th September, 2013 @ 07:44 am PDT

in the next major war between superpowers a few gigantic nuclear weapons will immidiately be set off in the thermosphere and exosphere.

even 'hardened' satellites that can supposedly withstand high energy electrons cannot withstand too many micro-fragments striking them.

how many 'de-orbiting' devices can 'clear' low earth orbit.

you would need too many. the 'solution' is simply flying more sattelites at higher orbits. it costs more energy but it WORKS and it keeps sattelites safe from debri. the real issue then becomes, where can a sattelite be kept safe from high energy electrons , ions and radiation, without getting whipped by the radiation belts.

the inner van allen belt can enter the thermosphere under the right conditions, but is , according to wiki confined to a lower limit of 600 miles. so between 250 and 600. current geostationary sattelite orbit well within the far more diffuse, outer van allen belt, at around 22k

miles.

putting sattelites in super high orbits, over 10,00 miles would be far more costly, but you wouldn't really have the micro-fragment problem of lower orbits.

its that simple from a practical perspective. especially if you are keeping human beings in outerspace.

zevulon
17th September, 2013 @ 07:58 am PDT

Our orbit must be Kept clean, if not it will be uninhabitable by man or machine, possibly making space travel,satellites or anything else we try to put up their look like swiss cheese.

On the other hand it might guard us from meteors as they will not be able to reach earth as they will be destroyed by space trash before they get the chance.

Jay Finke
17th September, 2013 @ 10:48 am PDT

This is a great idea. I'm also very happy to hear that a new, slimmer, autonomous version of the Space Shuttle is being reborn in the ESA. Somebody needs to do it.

It seems to me that a cleaner device could be a maneuverable vehicle that could plant sticky cherry-bomb-like devices on dead satellites and other debris that would be sufficient to propel the trash into the atmosphere where it could burn up on reentry. The cleaner device could stay in space for months (or even longer) and put the tiny thrusters on hundreds of larger chunks of debris (maneuvering to put the thruster on the side opposite Earth) while scooping up smaller debris into its onboard trash can. After its fuel was almost exhausted, it's belly full of little pieces of space junk, and all of its thrusters deployed, it could then be commanded to dive toward the Earth and burn itself up.

The whole legal BS would have to be solved first, of course, with some agency (perhaps a UN Space Agency) having authority to approve removal of particular pieces of space junk by anyone who happens by. The current situation is impossible because of childish squabbling about, "That's mine. You can't touch it!" Imagine how our highways would look if you had to get permission from the owner before picking up a discarded hamburger wrapper. I realize that putting stuff in space is expensive and people don't want their stuff bothered, but really. This junk is becoming hazardous to us.

RicardoCR
17th September, 2013 @ 01:00 pm PDT

I bet there's a bunch of classified stuff still up there that will upset various government spook agencies if they fell into the "wrong" hands. Or maybe that's what this is really intended to do?

artmez
17th September, 2013 @ 06:58 pm PDT

Large balloon like the old ECHO ones, coated with a sticky substance that stays sticky and flexible in the vacuum and temperature extremes of space.

Let it stay in orbit while micro bits of debris come along and get stuck like flies on fly paper.

When it's so encrusted nothing more will stick, bring it down.

Gregg Eshelman
17th September, 2013 @ 07:35 pm PDT

I second Franc on the speed difference. No easy solution for junk in space.

A drag net arrangement might work, but at those speeds it will be shredded in no time, and you also have to keep in mind where the stuff lands.

Space based energy or mass driver weapons platforms are the suitable solution, but then the usual people will put up their hands in rage about hidden agendas to weaponize space.

Nairda
17th September, 2013 @ 09:34 pm PDT

The first thing I thought when I saw the title was Quark and it was the first sentence in the article! What I really like is a well understood launch system that looks like it could "grow" and evolve over time. This also reminds me of some of the original smaller USA space shuttle designs. Smaller payload in exchange for faster development time. Could the A300 use a new split tail?

cfg83
18th September, 2013 @ 05:52 pm PDT

What a waste. Those items are valuable. We need a space factory to receive and transform the items in space back into usable devices and materials. Wouldn't some kind of ballistic gel be able to trap many items of different sizes and then be cleaned out. Actual satellites and large items of spent delivery vehicles could be grappled and taken to the same facility for ultimate reuse. That would be the most responsible plan of action for this problem.

A space station positioned at the LaGrange point between the Earth and Moon would seem to be an appropriate location for such a facility. Once established only fuel would have to be brought to it as it could have hydroponic gardens to feed the inhabitants and recycle carbon/oxygen to maintain a breathable atmosphere. Eventually asteroid mining could use the same facility and perhaps provide all of the needs of the inhabitants.

Philip Konzak
27th September, 2013 @ 05:26 am PDT
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