Swiss announce mission to clean up orbital junk

The Swiss have a reputation for cleanliness and order, and now they’re planning to tidy up space.

Scientists at the Swiss Space Center EPFL have announced a project called CleanSpace One – a family of satellites specially designed to get rid of space debris.

The Earth is surrounded by a cloud of space debris, with NASA keeping tabs on over 16,000 items.

Last year, the Swiss Re insurance company published a study showing that every year, there is a nearly one in 10,000 chance that a 10m2 satellite traveling in a sun-synchronous orbit will collide with a piece of space debris larger than 1cm.

And it’s already happened: on February 10, 2009, the US satellite Iridium-33 exploded upon impact with the abandoned Russian satellite Cosmos-2251.

“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.

The team’s chosen a symbolic target for the initial CleanSpace One launch: either Switzerland’s first orbiting object, the Swisscube picosatellite which was put in orbit in 2009, or its cousin TIsat, launched in July 2010.

To come alongside its target, the satellite will use a new kind of ultra-compact motor currently under development. When it gets within range of its target – which will be traveling at 28,000kmh at an altitude of 630 to 750km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it with a new gripping mechanism.

Finally, once it’s coupled with the satellite, CleanSpace One will get rid of the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.

Although its first model is destined to be destroyed, the CleanSpace One adventure will not be a one-shot deal, says the team.

“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,” says 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, as well as its maiden space voyage, will cost about 10 million Swiss francs. The team says it expects the first orbital rendezvous to take place within three to five years.