[Satellite TODAY Insider 02-20-12] Switzerland confirmed its plans to spend approximately $10.8 million for the design and development of a new line of satellites that would clean up orbital debris and space junk left behind by previous artificial satellites and space probes.
Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass announced Feb. 17 that the Clean Space One project would be completed during the next three to five years.
“Researchers at the Swiss Space Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have been working on the necessary technology for three years,” Gass said in a press statement. “The idea is to stem the tide of debris that is littering space around the Earth. Space junk is an increasing problem for space agencies. It ranges in size from entire satellites that are uncontrolled to rocket stages or fragments from collisions.”
Swiss researchers said the Clean Space One semiautomatic probe would need a sophisticated guidance and control system to insert itself into the right orbit to reach a target moving at 28,000 km/h. Cameras also will be needed to optically identify the target satellite.
“We are investigating biologically inspired gripping mechanisms to snag the target, such as one that has tentacles like a sea anemone,” said Gass. “Once captured, the combined object would have a new center of gravity and may be spinning in an uncontrolled way. The probe has to stabilize the trajectory and then guide itself onto a curve toward the atmosphere.”
EPFL Professor and Astronaut Claude Nicollier stressed the importance of a space junk clean-up mission. “It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation,” Nicollier said in a statement. “Our labs are looking into a new ultra-compact motor that will enable the satellite to adjust its path to match that of its target.”
Gass said that while it remains to be seen how cost-effective the Clean Space One satellites are since they are not reusable, governments might provide the funding if they can agree to an international policy on limiting debris. “We hope to someday offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainable as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites.”
The European Union (EU) has proposed its own draft rules for space situational awareness, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered a starting point. In January, Clinton warned about the threat of space junk, and said the United States would hold talks with the EU to set informal rules aimed at limiting debris.