Critical Software and Deimos led two main subsystems of a historical mission to clean space
The European Space Agency has signed the 86 million contract to carry out the first mission to remove space debris from orbit. The ClearSpace1 mission, scheduled for 2025, will rely on the leadership of Portuguese companies in two of the satellite’s main subsystems.
ClearSpace-1 will use ESA-developed robotic arm technology to capture the Vespa, then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry.
About a year after the approval of the ADRIOS (Active Debris Removal and In-Orbit Servicing) programme, the European Space Agency (ESA) has signed, on December 1st 2020, an €86 million contract with an industrial team led by ClearSpace. An agreement that will allow the Swiss start-up to engage four Portuguese companies in one unique service and a historic mission: the first removal of an item of space debris from Earth orbit.
If all the procedure goes as planned, in 2025, ClearSpace will launch the first active debris removal mission, ClearSpace-1, which will collect, capture and bring down for re-entry a Vespa payload adapter. Once collected, both ClearSpace and Vespa, that has around 100 kg of weight and the size of a small satellite, will be destroyed on re-entry into the atmosphere.
Developed under the ADRIOS programme this contract is the first step towards a cleaner Earth’s orbit and it is, according to ESA, “a critical milestone for establishing a new commercial sector in space will be achieved”. Instead of developing an ESA-defined spacecraft for in-house operation, the Agency is acquiring the mission in an end-to-end service contract, which represents a new way for ESA to do business.
The meaningful presence of national companies is possible due to Portugal’s commitment of 7.5 million Euro to the first phase of the ADRIOS mission, approved at the Ministerial Council held in November 2019, Space19+.
The involvement of Portuguese companies in Clearspace-1 is a way to “assure that Portugal can gain a long-term competitive advantage in one of the greatest challenges of our time”, states Ricardo Conde, President of the Portuguese Space Agency. “Europe is taking the lead in ensuring that space debris is not a source of disruption to our economy, way of life and well-being, and Portugal, which is working to take a leading role in space systems and subsystems, could not fall behind.” “And by being involved in ADRIOS we show that we are concerned about the sustainability of the space environment”, states Mr. Ricardo Conde.
To build the neurological system of a spaceship
Deimos Engenharia is leading the consortium, which comprises the also Portuguese Lusospace and ISQ and the German DLR, that will develop the Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) systems to control the satellite movement or the also-called satellite “autopilot”. The consortium will also be responsible for performing tests to support Clearspace in the assembly, integration, testing and operation of the mission.
“This is the natural result of a long R&D path in GNC technologies for the so-called non-collaborative rendez-vous interaction with an object we have no control over, like a satellite drifting. We have been consolidating this technological area for more than 10 years and we will be able to qualify it with a very special mission which will usher in a new era of space services”, states Mr. Nuno Ávila, director-general of Deimos Engenharia.
“We will grant the intelligence to the mission”, Mr. Ávila adds, explaining that together the Portuguese companies are responsible for a significant part “of the neurological system of the ship that will make it achieve its mission”.
Critical Software will lead the creation of the in-flight software, as well as the software that will manage the object capture, the detection and recovery of system failures, equipment management, and the thermal and energy management of the ship.
Mauro Gameiro, Critical’s primary engineer, highlights that ClearSpace1 will be “the first time in history that Portuguese companies will be leading sub-systems of great importance in a space mission”. “There are five or six main systems in the ship and Portugal has two companies leading those subsystems.”
“For Portugal, this is a fundamental increase in the value chain of space systems and gives us amplified credibility for future missions. It is a clear roof of technical credibility of which we should be honoured”, adds Mr. Ávila, underlining that “the fact that our companies have been given this responsibility was no accident. The Portuguese companies were in a Europe-wide competition with the best of the best”.
LusoSpace and ISQ are part of the consortium led by Deimos. According to Ivo Vieira, executive director from Lusospace, the company “will ensure that all component suppliers of the components of the GNC systems meet the different requirements”.
As for ISQ, the company will be carrying out quality tests from start to finish of the satellite construction, assuring that ClearSpace-1 does not become one more space debris. “If one device collides with another, it can produce a chain reaction,” says Paulo Chaves, responsible for the Aeronautics and Space Market at ISQ.
The urgency of ClearSpace1 mission is the result of the presence of more than 750,000 objects in orbit with a size larger than 1 cm, which are all potentially mission ending. These objects coexist with around 3,000 inactive satellites, out of a total of 4,500 that orbit the Earth, and every year approximately 100 tons of debris re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere uncontrolled.
With an average of around 100 new launches every year, specialist projections estimate that the number of debris objects in Space will gradually increase.
ClearSpace-1 aims to demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight. In the long run, expects to develop the process in order to make it cheaper and more frequent, ideally using devices that can be used repeatedly. At the same time, the international Space community is seeking to establish rules to force those who launch satellites to take responsibility for the waste they produce in space.