Europe wants to use a suicidal robot to clean up space — one satellite at a time

Europe wants to use a suicidal robot to clean up space — one satellite at a time
Artist impression of ClearSpace-1Clear Space SA


  • The European Space Agency plans to use a four-armed robot to drag space debris back to Earth.
  • The robot will launch into space, wrap itself around the target, and fall back to Earth in a controlled descent.
  • The robot called Chaser has been developed by a Swiss start-up called ClearSpace.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has a plan to clean up Earth's orbit — one satellite at a time. A four-armed robot — the Chaser — will launch into space and drag space debris back to Earth in a blaze of glory.

The robot, developed by a Swiss startup called ClearSpace, will first be tested in Earth's lower 500-kilometre orbit and by 2025, ESA plans to start delegating official targets — the first of which will be Vespa, the secondary payload adapter of ESA's Vega launch in 2013.

It's not an actually a satellite but it's around the same size and shape — ideal for ESA's ClearSpace Mission-1.

Chaser, once launched into space, will wrap itself around the chosen piece of space trash and fall back towards Earth in a controlled, but fiery, descent.


Europe wants to use a suicidal robot to clean up space — one satellite at a time
Artist impression, ClearSpace-1 with captured VespaClear Space SA

The objective is to actively participate in cleaning up space, while also setting an example of the kind of technology that's needed to do so, according to the agency.

"NASA and ESA studies show that the only way to stabilise the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items… This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process," said Luisa Innocenti, head of ESA's Clean Space initiative.

The growing threat of space debris

Earth's immediate orbit is already home to around 20,000 objects — and it's only going to get more crowded. Governments are sending up an increasing amount of radar technology in the name of self-defence. SpaceX launching thousands of satellites to deliver global access to the internet.

"In the coming years the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit to deliver wide-coverage, low-latency telecommunications and monitoring services," said Luc Piget, founder and CEO of ClearSpace.

Europe wants to use a suicidal robot to clean up space — one satellite at a time
Animation of space debris around EarthESA

The market for satellite space launches is set to hit $30 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research. It's growing at an average annual rate of 17.2%. More countries are coming into the space exploration fold and companies are looking to be self-dependent while expanding the range of services that they can provide.

"Even if all space launches were halted tomorrow, projections show that the overall orbital debris population will continue to grow, as collisions between items generate fresh debris in a cascade effect," said Innocenti.

The threat that already exists

Nevermind the risk of these objects accidentally colliding with each other, there's already a ton of junk lying in wait. Earth's Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) is home to more than 3,000 defunct satellites and millions of smaller pieces of debris. To make matters worse, all of these pieces are flying around at thousands of kilometres per hour.

"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," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.

According to Piuget, what Earth needs is an outer space ‘tow truck' to remove the trash from Earth's largest garbage dump.

See also:
India doesn't trust US with measuring space debris — and so it will set up its own agency

The trash in outer space makes way for a new kind of map

A new space debris grading system could keep countries from cluttering up outer space