The CleanSpace One satellite has a new ally in its mission to clean up space debris. EPFL has entered into a partnership with Swiss Space Systems (S3). The company will invest CHF 15 million in the project and will launch the satellite into orbit.
In 2012, EPFL announced its intention to design and launch CleanSpace One, a satellite whose mission is to begin to clean up the thousands of bits of jettisoned rocket and satellite components orbiting Earth at speeds of more than 28,000 km/h. The mission is crucial for the future of the space industry. Now Swiss Space Systems – S3 has joined the project. The Swiss company is developing a new method to launch satellites weighing up to 250 kg, and will take charge of CleanSpace One’s launch, now scheduled for 2018. EPFL and S3 announced their partnership publicly on September 10, 2013.
CleanSpace One, a satellite to clean up Earth’s orbit
The debris orbiting Earth is accumulating. Although collisions with functioning satellites are rare, each collision can generate several thousand new bits of debris. The problem is becoming increasingly serious and making space missions more complicated.
CleanSpace One’s mission is to grab hold of a piece of space junk – in this case an out-of-commission Swiss nanosatellite measuring 10cm on each side – and thrust it into the atmosphere, where it will burn up. Navigating to and seizing the ex-satellite is a formidable feat of engineering.
A three-phase launch
Swiss Space Systems – S3 is now the Prime partner in this project. The company, headquartered in Payerne, Switzerland, is developing a new launch method for small satellites up to hundreds of kilograms in weight. A small shuttle rides piggyback atop an A300 jetliner. When the plane reaches cruising altitude, this Suborbital Reusable Shuttle (SOAR) lights its engines and takes off upwards. When it reaches an altitude of 80km, it ejects a vessel, which after reaching an altitude of 700 km, releases the satellite into Earth’s orbit. Both the Airbus and the shuttle are reusable and use standard fuels, making the system very cost-effective.
The goal of this three-phase process is to make space more accessible – it cuts launch costs by a factor of four. And to make sure that this doesn’t end up putting even more space debris in Earth orbit, S3 will ensure that all the elements in the chain – including the satellites – include their own re-entry systems. In this context, their partnership with CleanSpace One makes perfect sense.
“You can’t democratize space access without having a responsible attitude,” says Pascal Jaussi, CEO of Swiss Space Systems. “If we don’t deal with the problem of orbiting space debris and its accumulation, future generations’ access to space will be compromised.”
The company will take care of launching CleanSpace One, which in 2018 will be the first satellite launched into orbit using the new method. All told, Swiss Space Systems will invest at least CHF 15 million in the project – CHF 10 million for the launch itself and CHF 5 million for assembling and testing satellite components and ground-based command operations.
The satellite design is on the right track
At EPFL, the project has made considerable progress since its public announcement in 2012. The design is slightly different – it’s a bit bigger than originally planned, and will weigh about 30 kg. Scientists have tested many technologies that could potentially be integrated into the satellite, some that are already on the market, and others still in the development stages in companies and universities.
Finally, as part of a partnership with the European Space Agency, researchers are developing many key technologies targeting space debris – propulsion, navigation and reconnaissance systems and, above all, a device that can anchor itself to pieces of debris. ETH Zurich and the Swiss Universities of Applied Science are participating in this as well. They are counting on integrating their developments into the CleanSpace One project.
Author: Lionel Pousaz