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  • Swiss to grab junk out of space

    - Scientists from the Swiss Space Center, EPFL want to develop a satellite that grabs space debris out of the Earth’s orbit. Within 3-5 years, the first “space janitor” will be launched. Goal is to clean up objects that threaten to collide with working satellites.

    The Earth's orbit is a mess. Leftovers from satellites, spent rocket stages, broken spacecraft fragments - hundreds of millions of particles and debris pieces chase around at speeds of several kilometers per second. This is not mildly unpleasant, but in fact very costly. Junk accelerated to such velocity is constantly threatening to collide with existing satellites.

    Insurance companies made a good business out of this. Taken together, all currently working satellites have been insured for a total of $20 billion (€15.2 billion). NASA tracks the movements of 16,000 objects that are larger than 10 cm in diameter. The International Space Station, meanwhile, needs to repeatedly change its orbit in order to avoid collision.

    Approach - grapple - de-orbit

    Researchers from the Swiss Space Center at EPFL now announced the development of a new family of satellites designed to grapple space debris out of the orbit. The project called CleanSpace One is expected to cost over 10 million Swiss francs (€8.2 million) over a time span of three to five years.

    Following its launch, the new "janitor satellite" would be ejected in an altitude of around 700 km. Subsequently, CleanSpace One approaches its target at a speed of 28.000 km/h, grapples it and carries it back into the Earth's atmosphere where both go up in flames.

    Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass explained that "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. 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."

    Space cleanup infographic by Pascal Coderay, EPFL

    Infographic by Pascal Coderay, EPFL