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ClearSpace-1 is a European space debris cleanup mission run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Swiss startup ClearSpace, and it has been harmed by space debris. The goal of the mission is to collect a Vespa payload adapter left in low Earth orbit by a Vega rocket over a decade ago and is due to launch in 2026.
However, ESA recently announced it was informed by the US Space Force that it had identified several pieces of space debris in the region of the upcoming cleanup, which ironically likely came from an impact between the Vespa payload adapter and previously unaccounted-for space debris.
According to Interesting Engineering, in 2020 ESA awarded Clearspace a $93 million contract to fly a mission to low Earth orbit capable of collecting the adapter and removing it from orbit.
ESA responded saying “The development of the ClearSpace-1 mission will continue as planned while additional data on the event is collected. ESA and industrial partners are carefully evaluating the event’s impact on the mission,” and added that this could take several weeks.
ESA announced the “Zero Debris Charter Initiative” in June, which aims to prevent the creation of more space debris. In July, the company performed an “assisted reentry” of an Earth science spacecraft called Aeolus, which was originally intended to perform a controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere but ran out of propellant before it could perform the maneuver.
Nevertheless, despite all of ESA’s efforts, the problem of space debris will only grow as more and more satellites and spacecraft are launched into Earth’s orbit, which means we may be dangerously close to a Kessler Syndrome scenario.
Kessler Syndrome is a name for a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit due to space pollution is numerous enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.
Dr. Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina explained in an interview with Interesting Engineering that SpaceX’s Starlink constellation brings us “right on the edge” of Kessler Syndrome, and that this could drastically affect astronomical operations as it would make it look like we are “inside a snow globe within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset.”
According to NASA, there are over 27,000 pieces of space debris in orbit, with SpaceX having more than 4,000 active Starlink satellites in orbit and partial FCC approval for its second-generation Starlink constellation, consisting of up to 30,000 more satellites.