ESA Member States, including Portugal, decide to take the lead for the removal of space debris

During the ESA Meeting at Ministerial Level, Space19+, that took place in Sevilla end of November, ESA Member States decided to take the lead for the removal of space debris, by financially supporting ADRIOS, a mission lead by ClearSpace. The Swiss startup was selected earlier this year by the European Space Agency to carry out the first mission to remove space debris in orbit. The mission, scheduled for 2025, will rely on the leadership of Portuguese companies in two of the satellite’s main subsystems.

There are 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. These figures explain the urgency of developing technology and solutions that enable the controlled and safe removal of debris that human activity has left in space over the last decades. To this aim, the European Space Agency has launched a new activity that has received the support of its Member States.

The European Space Agency will now assign the first such mission to ClearSpace, a startup created by a team of researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). The development will start in early 2020 and will involve Portuguese companies.

The strong presence of Portuguese companies is possible due to Portugal’s commitment of 7.5 million euro to the first phase of the ADRIOS (Active Debris Removal and In-Orbit Servicing) mission, approved by ESA at the Ministerial Council held in November, Space19+.

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” says ESA Director General Jan Wörner. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue. ESA’s Member States have given their strong support to this new mission, which also points the way forward to essential new commercial services in the future.”

In addition to Portugal, seven other ESA member states have committed to funding the ADRIOS mission. At Space19+, Ministers agreed to place a service contract with a commercial provider for the safe removal of an inactive ESA-owned object from low-Earth orbit. Under ESA’s new Space Safety Programme, which has the goal of protecting us from hazards and threats originating in space (natural and/or man-made), this initiative aims to actively contribute to clean-up space, while also demonstrating the technologies needed for waste disposal. The innovative element of this activity is its commercial approach, enabling the industrial Consortium to provide ESA with a service as the first step towards a commercial business of in-space waste management and possibly other in-orbit services such.

The ADRIOS mission will target the recovery of a secondary payload adapter, Vespa, which was left in space by the Vega launcher back in 2013. The Vespa is about 100kg, and the size of a small satellite, which combined with robust construction and simple shape makes it a suitable first target for the industrial Consortium.

The structure of the consortium led by ClearSpace is being finalised, and the Swiss company is negotiating with Portuguese companies regarding their leadership of the in-flight software and for the GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control) subsystems, two critical systems of the spacecraft.

Portugal to take the lead in one of the largest future markets in space – Space Safety

Space should be considered as a common good, to be associated with our institutions and collective ambitions, as clearly considered in “Portugal Space 2030”. Space provides the infrastructure for personal mobility, communication for work or when on vacation, weather forecasting, precision farming to maximise crop harvesting and crop rotation, banking transactions, management of precious resources such as potable water, monitoring of forest fires, archaeological investigations…, scientific knowledge and the dream of expanding the reach of humanity. These and many more activities rely today on space data and the infrastructure to generate this data and enable its use.

The sectors that can profit from space-based solutions are agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure, urban development (including land register, land usage and urban mobility), transportation, maritime, shipping, communication, tourism, banking, defence and security, and even the public health sector and epidemic monitoring, amongst others.

It is in this context that Portugal Space advocates “Democratisation of Space”, meaning the full integration of space into economy and society in a sustainable manner, both environmental (in space and on Earth) as well as economic.

By contributing to the Space Safety Programme, Portugal reinforces that space is a fundamental infrastructure that serves economic growth (in-space and on Earth) and that needs to be evolved and protected and enables a world 1st and European leadership and competitive advantage in one of the largest future markets in space.

The benefits of space debris mitigation and clean space activities are manifold:

• Social: Unchecked growth in space debris will make specific orbits unusable, such as those used by vital climate, Earth observation and telecom satellites, permanently and catastrophically limiting critical services on which society relies. At the same time, collision avoidance warnings will enable satellite operators to take protective measures. The drive for sustainability and the protection of the environment is a value also shared by many in Europe, especially the youth.
• Economic: The destruction of individual satellites or permanent loss of specific orbits due to unchecked debris growth would have devastating global effects. For Europe, this could mean the loss of economic activity in space which are directly worth over 8000 M€. In addition, global satellite operators today spend 15 M€ annually on debris impact avoidance manoeuvres. With the increase of space activities so will this number increase if nothing is done. Developing technologies to automate collision warnings provide highly accurate orbit data and mitigate debris and investing into the removal of debris can create a variety of jobs and business opportunities for European industry including supporting the new market of space servicing. Furthermore, the next breakthrough in space will be in-space production/manufacturing/recycling and capabilities for tackling debris are the same as those needed for in-orbit servicing and manufacturing.
• Geopolitical: Space is an enabler for the global economy and any loss of free and open use of space due to uncontrolled debris growth would undermine international economic stability, and by extension, endanger international public order.
• Scientific: Safeguarding our space assets against the risk of debris requires studying debris causation, and developing new statistical models, technologies, techniques and systems. Innovative technological solutions need to be studied to evolve satellites so that they do not become debris and removing debris requires a step forward in a technical solution for close proximity operations.

Accurate, timely and comprehensive situational awareness is instrumental for the protection and safe operation of all critical European (and indeed global) space infrastructure.

Activities in this area will empower institutional, industrial and governmental users, by supporting sustainable space traffic management including monitoring, risk assessments and reduction, in-orbit servicing and debris mitigation, as well as designing to decrease environmental impacts, reduce the production of space debris and deorbiting large pieces of space debris. Examples of potential users include:

• Institutional and governmental users: Data processing, cataloguing and automation tools and software enabling timelier, more actionable information, and improving the ability of ESA, national space agencies and institutional partners to protect satellite fleets; and
• Industry: European industry can gain long-term competitive advantage by developing technologies and platforms that are effectively compliant with debris mitigation regulation. Precursors for active debris removal can build new European industrial capabilities needed to perform in-orbit servicing.

The next step beyond technological developments is a Space Traffic Management framework. Space Safety also includes, in addition to Space Debris and Clean Space, Space Weather and Planetary Defence, all elements in which Portugal will invest.

About Portugal Space

The Portuguese Space Agency, Portugal Space, is an organisation created by the Portuguese Government, in close collaboration with the Regional Government of the Azores, with the main goal of executing the “Portugal Space 2030” strategy and promote and strength the space ecosystem and value chain in Portugal for the benefit of society and economy through a number of focus fields, namely Earth Observation, Telecommunication, Space Safety and Space Transportation, and to enable that, by 2030, Portugal is widely recognized as a global authority in the science and economy of Space-Earth Climate-Oceans interactions.


Portugal Space
10 of December, 2019