science waste

Switzerland out to tidy up space

In 2009, Switzerland launched its first satellite. Called the SwissCube, it’s function was to train people in the building, launch and use of satellites, and was run as a university project. Now the Swiss Space Center has announced its second project – a cleanup robot that can remove debris from space, starting with their own SwissCube.

It’s the first time a country has taken responsibility for its share of space trash. It’s also the first attempt to create a cleanup robot to address the growing problem of orbiting debris.

As I’ve written about before, there are around 18,000 trackable pieces of space debris, and millions more that are too small to keep an eye on. Since it only takes a fragment the size of a flake of paint to destroy a satellite, it makes the earth’s orbit a rather crowded place. At high speed, that flake wouldn’t just disable the satellite, but blow it into smithereens, each of which would in turn become a new hazard to other satellites. In a worse case scenario, a domino effect could be set off that disabled every satellite in orbit and rendered space unusable from there on. Or at least that’s the warning issued by the UN’s wonderfully named Office of Outer Space Affairs a couple of years ago.

The new Swiss robot is called CleanSpaceOne, and it’s no bigger than a shoebox. It has a claw on the front that can grapple another satellite and move it out of orbit and into a new trajectory that sends them both hurtling towards the earth. They then burn up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere. It’s a bit like a 28,000 kilometer per hour rugby tackle in space, so it’s a worthy challenge for the next generation of Switzerland’s undergraduate aerospace engineers.

As well as actually removing a satellite, the CleanSpaceOne programme aims to raise awareness of space debris and demonstrate some possible solutions. The project expects to launch in 2015 – 2017, and if it’s successful, it could lead to whole ‘families’ of robots sent to tidy up space.


  1. Since the cost of getting a satellite into orbit is not inconsequential, I assume that the goal is not to remove every single piece of space debris one cosmic rugby tackle at a time, but to focus on removing some of the larger pieces that have the potential to be part of a debris chain reaction.

    I’ve also heard of trying to use surface-based lasers to influence the orbits of objects that are going to collide, though this requires the careful tracking of every single piece of space junk (which already happens, but not yet accurately enough to predict every collision) and raises important questions of jurisdiction and international law: “Oops, we nudged your spy satellite because it looked like it was going to crash into ours, and now it has dropped out of orbit. Sorry!”

    1. Yes, because they’re quite small, I think they’re planning to send lots of them at once, to target larger pieces. Whether anyone will or not is another question. There’s no economic advantage to taking your satellites down, other than good neighbourliness and maintaining the commons of space.

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