Swiss Space Center Director Wants More Funding for Space Debris Project

[Satellite News 03-28-12] The Swiss Space Center hopes to obtain investments from international firms to support its recent efforts to develop a solution that will clean up space debris in orbit. The organization announced the details of its CleanSpace One program in February, which included a budget of 10 million Swiss Francs ($11.07 million) to complete the project.

   The first orbital rendezvous of the organization’s space debris solution could take place within three to five years depending on the strength of its funding and industrial partner network, Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass told Satellite News.
   “We are in talks with organizations both in Switzerland and abroad in terms of joining in the project,” said Gass. “What is really unique about the CleanSpace One project is that we have now announced a concrete mission related to space debris removal. A lot of countries and a lot of institutes have been working on this for many years. At the [European Space Agency] ESA Ministers’ Conference in 2008, there was a move towards space situational awareness and countries started work on this in January 2009.”
   Gass said the time is right to launch a concrete space debris clean-up mission with a concrete goal. The CleanSpace One project hopes to be that solution — targeting either Switzerland’s first orbiting object, the Swisscube picosatellite placed in orbit in 2009, or its cousin TIsat, launched in July 2010. Gass, however, admitted that making the project a success would be far from easy from a technical point of view.
   “The big challenge is miniaturization because you can take a Space Shuttle or go and rendezvous with a satellite, such as Eureka, and use a robot system to bring it back down. This has been done at a high expense with very heavy means,” said Gass. “The challenge with our program is to go after the much smaller debris where it is not worth sending a large vehicle up. We are trying to miniaturize all the elements that we need to the altitude command and control system, the propulsion system, the optics and the grappling system. We will then place those elements into a vehicle that is barely three times the size of the cube we are trying to catch.”
   The Swiss Space Center hopes to gain access to extra funding so that it can ramp up its efforts. Gass said the organization is currently running the program with its own funds, but is already getting interest from unlikely sources.
   “There are people that are interested in the idea from different industry sectors,” he said. “We got a call from a large recycling operation in a European country. We did not necessarily think a ground recycling company would be interested in this, but if they want to use this image for their campaign, then why not? An investment of 10 million Swiss Francs won’t cut it in terms of reducing space debris. It is not going to reduce the probability of a collision.”
   The Swiss Space Center may not get the full amount of funding it is looking for, but Gass hopes that the increased media attention on space debris will generate extra money for the program. Space debris has been a challenge that the space industry has faced as a whole, with the issue becoming increasingly prominent as high-value space assets more often find themselves in the path of dangerous objects. While CleanSpace One is a relatively small-scale project on the international stage, the Swiss Space Center has already mapped out its plans for the future.
   “We are going to be working on a detailed design in the first phase,” said Gass. “We want to make a quite broad overview of existing technologies and their capabilities. That will be the task in the first year. Then, we will select the likely candidates. We have been doing micro-thrust and micro-propulsion work for two years in Switzerland, but that is not the only candidate. There is different work going on in terms of propulsion systems. The first phase is about technology selection, and then finalization of the mission scenario. The first objective is to go after the CubeSat that Switzerland launched, but it could be that it is not in the right orbit. There may be other satellites that are more favorable for the first mission, and then we would approach the people that own those satellites and see if they want to work with us.”
   Gass said the organization’s main goals are to demonstrate a feasible space debris solution and provide lessons from the project that can be taken and used elsewhere. “We want to be able to scale these solutions and transfer them to other units and satellites,” he said. “The role of producing this series of modules is more the job of a start-up company. We are willing to expand the program if we get the financing. We are pretty optimistic that this is going to work. Since we are going after our own satellite, we are not under any time pressure.”            

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