Giant 'space claw' to begin cleaning cosmic debris in 2025

The rush to clean up outer space has begun.

Giant 'space claw' to begin cleaning cosmic debris in 2025
Photo: ClearSpace
  • The European Space Agency finalized a contract to begin removing space debris in 2025.
  • ClearSpace was awarded a $105 million contract to use its space claw to extract space junk.
  • There are currently 129 million pieces of debris orbiting Earth.

    • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vortex of trash located between America's West Coast and Japan. In fact, it's not only one patch—there's a western patch closer to Japan and an eastern patch bobbing around southern California. While the surface debris is bad enough, it turns out that 70 percent of the garbage sinks to the ocean's bottom.

      Waterways are not the only places we dump trash. While environmentalists finally forced change on Staten Island's Fresh Kills Landfill, the world's largest garbage dump was the subject of notoriety for being visible from space. Speaking of space, humans have also left plenty of trash floating in the ether. As of 2019, an estimated 129 million pieces of space debris orbit our atmosphere.

      While most of the debris is tiny, roughly 34,000 objects measure over 10 centimeters in length. This includes dead spacecraft like the U.S. ship Vanguard I which first launched in 1958, and a camera lost by American astronaut Ed White on the first-ever space-walk. While most debris will incinerate upon entering Earth's atmosphere, many problems exist due to all that trash, such as interfering with newer missions.

      Artist's impression of the terrestrial suburbs, with its satellites and debris

      Credit: ESA


      "Out of sight, out of mind" is not an appropriate mantra if we want to continue space exploration. Last week, the European Space Agency (ESA) took the proactive step of finalizing a contract to begin space clean-up. Beginning in 2025, the ClearSpace-1 mission will remove a washing machine-sized piece of junk—a payload adapter—with a four-armed claw spacecraft. After plucking it from space, the claw will force it downward until incinerated.

      Over 23,000 objects have been discarded in 5,500 launches over the last 60 years. Space junk can float around for thousands of years. This is not a benign occurrence. In 2009, a communications satellite collided with a dead Russian military satellite, resulting in thousands of pieces of new debris.

      Cleaning up small junk is quite difficult—there's nothing akin to a pool skimmer in space yet—so ClearSpace, the company behind this project, will begin by grabbing a 112-kilogram payload adapter that was originally launched in 2013. The team is using a claw due to its mechanical flexibility; they tried a net as well, but given that you have to get it right on the first attempt, they wanted a bit of breathing room.

      ClearSpace-1: Earth’s First Space Debris Removal Mission

      The ESA signed a $105 million contract with ClearSpace for this project. ClearSpace CEO Luc Piguet says there's a lot of work in outer space:

      "The way space has been used until now has led to a situation where over 5,000 satellites and out-of-control rocket stages are in orbit compared to only 2,700 working satellites. In-orbit services are not only a natural part of future space operations, they will also ensure the development of a thriving space economy."

      ClearSpace isn't the only company leaving Earth's atmosphere. In October, the Japanese company, Astroscale, announced that it raised $191 million to clean up space debris. This is part of a broader movement by the U.K. Space Agency, which has awarded seven companies with £1m to clean up space. Graham Turnock, chief executive of the agency, says space will become an economic powerhouse in the coming years.

      "People probably do not realise just how cluttered space is. You would never let a car drive down a motorway full of broken glass and wreckages, and yet this is what satellites and the space station have to navigate every day in their orbital lanes… This funding will help us grasp this opportunity and in doing so create sought after expertise and new high skill jobs across the country."

      --

      Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

      A Magnetotail Around Mars Would Cause the Planet to Terraform Itself

      Imagine the birth of an entirely new ocean on the Martian surface. 

       

      Artist rendition of a terraformed Mars. Flickr.
      Technology & Innovation

      There are lots of arguments for exploring space and colonizing other planets. Exploration is a natural part of our species. The knowledge we gain is bound to propel our scientific understanding and capabilities. And admittedly, there are plenty of commercial reasons too. Plus, sooner or later, the Earth is going to die out. To survive, we’ll have to become an interplanetary species.

      Keep reading Show less

      The future of humanity: can we avert disaster?

      Climate change and artificial intelligence pose substantial — and possibly existential — problems for humanity to solve. Can we?

      Credit: stokkete / 223237936 via Adobe Stock
      13-8
      • Just by living our day-to-day lives, we are walking into a disaster.
      • Can humanity wake up to avert disaster?
      • Perhaps COVID was the wake-up call we all needed.
      Keep reading Show less

      Genetics of unexplained sudden cardiac arrest

      New research shines a light on the genetics of sudden cardiac deaths.

      Photo: Pixel-Shot / Adobe Stock
      Surprising Science
      • Soccer player Christian Eriksen of Denmark recently collapsed on the field from a cardiac arrest. Thankfully, he survived.
      • A new study examined the genetics underlying unexplained sudden cardiac death.
      • About 20 percent of these unexplained deaths are likely due to genetics.
      Keep reading Show less
      Technology & Innovation

      Finally, a scientific cure for the hiccups

      A new device cured the hiccups 92 percent of the time in a recent study involving more than 200 participants.

      Quantcast