Space junk is an ongoing problem for the world’s space administrations as decades worth of satellite launches and space missions have filled the Earth’s atmosphere with trash such as fuel tanks, lost tools and parts of derelict satellites. In order to combat this growing hazard and to avoid potentially devastating collisions, the Swiss Space Center at EPFL has launched CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first installment of satellites designed specifically to clean up space debris.

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Of the thousands of pieces of space junk in orbit, NASA is monitoring at least 16,000 of these objects that are larger than 10 cm in diameter. This is because if they collide with spacecraft or satellites at high speed, massive damage can occur. Not just that, but more junk is created. Enter CleanSpace One.

“It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation,” says Claude Nicollier, astronaut and EPFL professor. CleanSpace One is the Swiss Space Center’s first prototype in a family of “de-orbiting” satellites. For its first mission, the spacecraft will be tasked with targeting either Switzerland’s first orbiting object, the Swisscube picosatellite which was put in orbit in 2009, or its cousin TIsat, launched in July 2010.

However, it won’t be a simple task. Once in orbit, CleanSpace One will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target’s orbital plane. This is not an easy job and the EPFL are curently working on a new kind of ultra-compact motor to do this. Once it is within range of its target (which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km), CleanSpace One will have to grab and stabilize it using a special gripping mechanism. Once this is done, CleanSpace One will “de-orbit” the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.

“We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites,” explains Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass. “Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they’re sending into space. We want to be the pioneers in this area.”

The design and construction of CleanSpace One will cost about 10 million Swiss francs, but could also herald a brand new era of orbit clean-up.

+ Swiss Space Center

Via Daily Mail