In what I can confidently promise will be the heaviest metal sentence you’ll read this morning, the European Space Agency is kicking off a plan to grab space junk with orbiting metal claws as a way to tidy up the skies. The claw then flings itself and its trapped cargo into Earth’s atmosphere, where it burns up on re-entry.
I’ll wait for the guitar riffs to die down a touch.
Anyway, these sacrificial burning space claws are in the early stage of development. The ESA recently signed a deal with ClearSpace, the company building the claws, according to CNET:
The plan was initially conceived in 2019, but now the ESA is officially signing a contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace to build and launch its very first debris removal mission, called ClearSpace-1.
The claw’s first target is a VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) that’s been orbiting Earth since it helped launch an ESA Vega rocket back in 2013. The VESPA weighs 112 kgs and, according to the ESA, is close in size to a small satellite.
ClearSpace has a pretty cool animation of the space claw in action. It appears the plan is to send out multiple claws — a space claw swarm, if you will — in a single launch. Watching the claw in action reminds me of a white blood cell taking down a germ:
It wakes up when the sun hits it, immediately grabs a piece of technology and is destined to burn up in a fiery descent. I think we can all relate to the space claw a little here.
The ESA is committing 86 million euros to the project, which is planned to launch in 2025 under the name ClearSpace-1. Space junk is a difficult problem, as the ESA notes. In 60 years of space exploration, some 5,500 launches have resulted in more than 23,000 trackable pieces of debris. There are at least 900,000 objects orbiting our planet that are too small to track but can still do incredible damage to satellites, spacecraft or even “space professionals” (as the U.S. Space Force calls them) engaging in extravehicular activity.
And space exploration is only heating up. Humans are averaging 100 launches a year with breakups — objects that make it into orbit but are not whole — occurring four or five times a year. Just like down here on Earth, keeping things clean in space is critical to our existence there.