Space junk targeted for cleanup mission was hit by different space junk, making more space junk
Of all the spacecraft in all the orbits around the world, it slams into mine
On Tuesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that a decade-old piece of space junk it had targeted for removal in a future space debris cleanup has been whacked by another piece of stray kit, thereby increasing the amount of trash in orbit around Earth.
The 112kg rocket part – named VEga Secondary Payload Adapter (VESPA) – was left in space after the 2013 launch of an Arianespace Vega rocket. In its past life as a payload adapter, it helped to deliver the Proba-V, VNREDSat-1 and ESTCube-1 satellites into space from ESA's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Now it resides, fragmented, in its low Earth orbit of 660km altitude perigee, 790km apogee and 98.7 degree inclination, according to the ESA.
The newly splintered parts of VESPA were detected by the United States 18th Space Defense Squadron, which oversees the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN) – an outfit that detects, tracks and catalogs objects humans have put in space.
ESA said the fragmentation was "most likely" caused by the "hypervelocity impact of a small, untracked object." The space org said the fragments aren't likely to pose a collision risk to other missions. Probably didn't think this collision was likely either.
Preliminary investigations indicate that "the main object remains intact and has experienced no significant alteration to its orbit."
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All this is good news, because the ESA's ClearSpace-1 mission was scheduled to remove VESPA in 2026. ClearSpace-1 was planned to be the "first-ever mission to remove an existing derelict object from orbit through highly precise, complex, close proximity operations, all in the name of cleaning up space."
The technology demonstration is planned as the first step before more complex commercial and private missions can be put in the works.
The ESA signed a $126 million contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace SA to launch ClearSpace-1. The plan is to rendezvous with VESPA, capture it using four robotic tentacles, then pull it back towards Earth so the pair would burn up on reentry.
A visualization of the mission can be seen in the video below:
So far, ESA says ClearSpace-1 will continue as planned but the org, alongside industry partners, is evaluating the event's impact.
"Stay tuned during ESA's analysis in progress," tweeted the Swiss startup on Tuesday in response to the news.
In the meantime, the ESA may have found a silver lining to the unfortunate event – it highlights the relevance of this type of work.
"The most significant threat posed by larger objects of space debris is that they fragment into clouds of smaller objects that can each cause significant damage to active satellites," said the ESA. "To minimize the number of fragmentation events, we must urgently reduce the creation of new space debris and begin actively mitigating the impact of existing objects."
The SSN is currently tracking tracking more than 27,000 pieces of space trash. According to NASA. "Much more debris – too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions – exists in the near-Earth space environment."
Although once upon a time it was socially acceptable to leave an errant spacecraft floating about for up to 25 years, efforts are underway to require space operators to clean up after themselves in a more timely five years.
Those efforts coincide with a sharp increase in the number of items hurtled into space as systems such as SpaceX's Starlink continue to grow.
In July, Starlink devices reportedly comprised over half of all active satellites. ®