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ESA and ClearSpace SA sign contract for world’s first debris removal mission

26 November 2020 

ESA is signing an €86 million contract with an industrial team led by the Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA to purchase a unique service: the first removal of an item of space debris from orbit. As a result, in 2025, ClearSpace SA will launch the first active debris removal mission, ClearSpace-1, which will rendezvous, capture and bring down for reentry a Vespa payload adapter. Journalists are invited to follow an online round table for media on Tuesday, 1 December, at 13:30 CET. Mission experts will give an overview of the project status, explain the ambitious mission design and detail the next steps leading to launch.

A new way to do business for ESA

At ESA’s Space19+ Ministerial Council, ministers granted ESA the funding to place a service contract with a commercial provider for the safe removal of an inactive object from low Earth orbit. Following a competitive process, an industrial team led by ClearSpace SA – a spin-off company of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) – was invited to submit the final proposal. With this contract signature, a critical milestone for establishing a new commercial sector in space will be achieved. Purchasing the mission in an end-to-end service contract, rather than developing an ESA-defined spacecraft for in-house operation, represents a new way for ESA to do business. ESA is purchasing the initial mission and contributing key expertise, as part of the Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing project (ADRIOS) within ESA’s Space Safety Programme. ClearSpace SA will raise the remainder of the mission cost through commercial investors.

Vespa target is close in size to a small satellite

The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter). This object was left in an approximately 801 km by 664 km-altitude gradual disposal orbit, complying with space debris mitigation regulations, following the second flight of Vega back in 2013. With a mass of 112 kg, the Vespa target is close in size to a small satellite.

In almost 60 years of space activities, more than 5550 launches have resulted in some 42 000 tracked objects in orbit, of which about 23 000 remain in space and are regularly tracked. With today’s annual launch rates averaging nearly 100, and with break-ups continuing to occur at average historical rates of four to five per year, the number of debris objects in space will steadily increase. ClearSpace-1 will demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight. The mission is supported within ESA’s Space Safety Programme based at the agency’s ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Involvement of European industry in ClearSpace-1

Companies from a wide range of European countries are involved in the ClearSpace-1 mission. While the lead for the industrial team lies with ClearSpace SA, contributions come from enterprises in Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Romania.