CleanSpace One: In search of an active solution for space debris mitigation

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In the movie “Space Junk 3D”, the Head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Office guides the public via a giant 3D screen through the threats of collision hazards and the stunning images of Earth orbits, polluted with thousands of space debris[i].

Yet unfortunately, this is not just science fiction.

The issue of “space junk” or better, “space debris”, has become an increasingly pressing problem. Since the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik, in 1957, more than 6000 satellites have been put into space. Through the years, continued launches, dead satellites and some collision events have originated thousands of fragments, which now threaten the life of the satellites in orbit and even put at risk the very possibility to access space for present and future generations.

Indeed, the smallest debris can turn to be a potentially destructive weapon, given the rotation speed and the hostile environment in which satellites are located. In Low Earth Orbit, where objects rotate at 7.8 km per second, even if the debris population remains as it is today, the level of fragmentation will continue to grow exponentially[ii].

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hl28A9NfU4&w=590&h=315]

So, what would be an effective solution?

In the first place, greater awareness of where the debris are located can enhance the possibility to adopt avoidance maneuvers. Secondly, States should take measures to avoid dead satellites staying in orbit for decades, like return to Earth or displacement either in the upper “garage” orbits or in the upper atmosphere, where they will disintegrate. However, the adoption of such measures is not imposed by any binding Treaty and is accordingly left to the goodwill of States. Also, such maneuvers require carburant, thus reducing the lifespan of space objects.

The enthusiasm of the international space community was therefore  triggered when last February the Swiss Space Center announced the development of “CleanSpace One”, a satellite equipped with a grappling arm able to track down, grab and pull the hazardous space objects, in order for them to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. Within the next five years the system should be ready to interject its first target, which will be either Swisscube , or TIsat, both Swiss cubesats[iii]. However, despite some studies having already illustrated the technical feasibility of what should be the future commercial space vacuum cleaner[iv], the system raises several concerns from legal, technical and commercial perspectives.

From a space law point of view, the system seems consistent with the “Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines” adopted by the UNCOPUOS (United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2007. However, although they represent a valuable reference, the States are not under any binding obligation to “clean up their mess” in outer space. Moreover, a number of legal problems will have to be addressed if the removal concerns satellites belonging to other states. This could cause problems of ownership (it is not always possible to determine which is the launching state of a space debris), but also weaponization issues (as the prototype, being able to destroy another satellite by de-orbiting it, could be potentially used as a “space weapon”) and issues of international liability for damages, especially in the case of failure or downstream damages to other satellites. Also, if the dead satellite or debris is American or includes US parts, the question might arise whether the obtention of an export license is necessary. Additional problems would arise if the removal is addressed against a military or governmental satellite[v]. The initiative therefore needs to be accompanied by a clear set of rules, taking into consideration the UN Treaties and principles on outer space.

On a technical point of view, other problems will have to be faced: CleanSpace One will have to get onto the same orbital plane as the target (which will be moving at high velocity and could be rotating), grab it and de-orbit it. In addition, for the reentry in the upper atmosphere, surviving loads could cause great risk on the ground to populations, buildings and natural ecosystems[vi]. There is also a risk that thousands of new debris will be added into active orbits, with potentially serious consequences for the space environment and the existing missions. Finally, the sustainability (also on an economic point of view) of the launch of such a system will mean that the removal may be rather expensive, and the role of insurances in such a payment might have to be discussed.

So, can CleanSpace One really be a valuable active solution to the space debris issue? While the system is still a prototype, the idea of an “active” removal system seems to many to be the ultimate effective solution. Especially when big satellites, like Envisat, end their lifetime and cause a number of worries to the satellites in the nearby orbits. However, this cannot be the only solution. International cooperation and the general adoption of practices like the re-entry of satellites are essential to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the space environment and the free access to space for present and future generations. While we become more and more reliant on space, the possibility that it becomes a more and more limited resource should push to a wide agreement on a new binding engagement on space debris mitigation, ensuring the sustainable use of space in the benefit and interest of all countries and of present and future generations.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTAv7TsnjzA&w=590&h=360]


[i] “Space Junk 3D”, Big Movie Zone, http://www.bigmoviezone.com/filmsearch/movies/index.html?uniq=741

[ii] While 15.000 objects larger than 5 cm in Earth orbits can be tracked by radar and telescopes from the ground[ii], smaller space debris are not tracked. However craters on returned space hardware and in-situ impact detectors resulted in estimation that they might be in the several hundreds of thousands. See: Castronuovo M., “Active Space Debris Removal- A Preliminary Mission Analysis”, in Acta Astronautica, vol.69, issues 9-10, November-December 2011, p.848; http://www.esa.int/esaMI/Space_Debris/SEM2D7WX3RF_0.html; Rosanelli R., Vega: A new younger brother in the European launcher family, in the International Security Observer, 13/02/2012, http://securityobserver.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/vega-a-new-younger-brother-in-the-european-launcher-family/

[iii] Hatamoto M., “Swiss Unveil CleanSpace One Satellite to Clean Up Space”, Daily Tech, Science,16th February 2012, http://www.dailytech.com/Swiss+Unveil+CleanSpace+One+Satellite+to+Clean+up+Space/article24014.htm

[iv] Castronuovo M., “Active Space Debris Removal- A Preliminary Mission Analysis”, cit.

[v] Listner M., “Swiss Space Debris Effort Could Open the Political Door to Space Debris Removal”, The Space Review, February 27th, 2012, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2032/1

[vi] Wu Z., Hu R., Qu X.,Wang X., Wu Z., “ Space Debris Reentry Analysis Methods and Tools“, in Chinese Journal of Aeronautics, vol. 24, issue 4, August 2011, p. 387.

About Author

Rosa Rosanelli

Rosa Rosanelli is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Rosa is a graduate student of the Master 2 Space Law and telecommunications at Paris Sud University. She gained significant experience in the field of juridical, political and strategic aspects of space activities within the framework of a Istituto Affari Internazionali-Finmeccanica scolarship and an Internship at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. Her research activities include space for security and defence; European policy; telecommunications regulaton and export control. For the ISO, she is responsible for leading the research group on Defence & Aerospace. Rosa holds a Master in International Relations at Sapienza University of Rome. She speaks Italian, English, French, Russian and German.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: ISO » Goodbye Envisat, or legal issues associated to the threat of a massive space debris

  2. Pingback: Goodbye Envisat, or legal issues associated with the threat of a massive space debris | Space Safety Magazine

  3. The problem is not “if” space debris are a danger to other satellites and human travel to space – It is just a matter of time before more serious “accidents” due to these deadly projectiles occur: We already have had a collision between a dead satellite and an active one, resulting in another hundred thousand “bullets” flying around looking for a target to hit… The ISS is constantly on the lookout for these, and has had to change its orbit quite a few times already because of that: It is time to send an ULTIMATUM to the States responsible for these debris: Either YOU clean it up, or we will: The choice is yours – Once a debris has been identified, a Debris Removal Tool such as STAR Technology’s EDDE can go over to that debris, and either de-orbit it or move it to a “parking” orbit where it can later on be re-cycled – Let’s face it: every kilo of metal and material currently in orbit cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to send it up there: WHY DESTROY IT??? RE-USE IT.
    If Nation-states are concerned about their precious technology hoard, then by all means, let them go up there and do it themselves, Or we can provide safeguards that will give them oversight of the process, so they will feel secure.

    Incidentally, the EDDE system is self-powered, lightweight, and can move freely from orbit to orbit moving debris along, and can reach almost all inclinations – Once up there, it does not need fuel to move, and a set of 12 of these can have ALL orbiting debris cleaned up within 6 years!!!! Not only that, but it can also assist “live” satellites to maintain orbit without need for the customary on-board fuel for maneuvering, extending the life of existing satellites by decades. It can even bring them to the ISS for Servicing if need be!!! All that without need for on-board fuel.

    I think the entire Industry is now poised for a Space Revolution where the Nation States can no longer dictate their will without regard for consequences to others. There will be a time in the near future when such notion will be a thing of the past. Let’s work together and make it happen!!

    • rosarosanelli

      Thank you for your comment.

      I totally agree with you that the issue of space debris has to be faced as soon as possible and in the most effective way, and I see important future developments in “active” solutions to space debris mitigation.
      However, there is a precise legal framework governing space activities cannot be neglected when exercising the right to access space, a right that is recognised to States and not to enterprises. “Cleaning up” a space debris that it is possible to identify as part of a dead satellite (and therefore linked to a specific State) without the agreement or even against the will of the launching State can bring with it several consequences on a legal point of view, both property, liability and export control issues.

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