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Sustainable connectivity in space

on 07 June 2022

The world’s first mission to remove several small telecommunications satellites from orbit once they reach the end of their operational service is about to start building and testing its prototype spacecraft.

Within an ESA Partnership Project with satellite operator OneWeb the manufacturing of the first commercial “servicer” prototype designed to capture multiple satellites in low Earth orbit will soon begin. They will operate under the ESA Sunrise Programme.

Companies such as OneWeb are launching constellations comprised of hundreds of communications satellites to connect people in the hardest-to-reach locations through global satellite internet broadband services.

OneWeb currently has 428 satellites orbiting approximately 1200 km above the Earth; its completed constellation will number almost 650 satellites.

Removing these telecommunications satellites from their orbits once they are at the end of their lives is essential to ensure that today’s interconnected digital world is not compromised by collisions that damage active satellites in space – and to protect the low Earth orbit environment as a natural and shared resource.  

There are currently two options for removing end-of-life satellites from their orbits at the end of their predicted five to six years of service.

Each has been allocated enough fuel to be able to actively deorbit at the end of its useful lifetime. But, in case of failure, each has also been built with either a magnetic or a grappling fixture, so that a servicer spacecraft could collect and actively deorbit the satellite.

The servicer spacecraft that Astroscale will build and test is called “ELSA-M” and is planned for launch in 2024. The servicer spacecraft will be the first “space sweeper” capable of removing multiple defunct satellites from their orbits in a single mission.

Following this demonstration, Astroscale will offer a commercial service for clients that operate satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, providing the technology and capability to make in-orbit servicing part of routine satellite operations by 2030.

More details here

Image credit: OneWeb