Luc Piguet: ‘Today, we have over 2,000 failed satellites in orbit’

Interview with ClearSpace’s CEO Luc Piguet on solutions for a sustainable circular space economy

This Thursday 26 October, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) will host a workshop on the Future of space – the sustainable path. We spoke with one of the speakers, the CEO of ClearSpace Luc Piguet. His company was selected by the European Space Agency to carry out the world’s first mission to remove a debris object from orbit.

What is ClearSpace doing, and why is this so important?

Luc Piguet profileLuc Piguet: ClearSpace is an in-orbit servicing company. We are working on launching a number of servicer spacecraft – we are building them now – to support institutions and commercial operators alike to enhance sustainable space operations and promote a circular space economy.

The company was founded in 2018 and afterwards, in 2019, we were selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) for its landmark mission – ClearSpace-1 – to conduct the world’s first mission to remove a debris object from orbit. Supported by eight ESA member states, we aim to launch a robotic servicer spacecraft onboard a Vega-C rocket in 2026 to conduct this mission.

Next to this, ClearSpace has been selected by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to conduct the design phase for a mission that will remove two UK-registered objects from space with a single, refuellable servicer. Those missions pave the way towards a much-needed recurrent debris removal service.

Additionally, ClearSpace is developing a mission to extend the life of satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO). After docking to a client satellite, the ClearSpace servicer will take over station-keeping functions of the spacecraft, prolonging the owner’s revenue streams without the need to launch a new satellite.

All this is important because of the escalating congestion and heightened risk of collisions in orbit – today we have nearly 8,700 live satellites and more than 2,000 failed ones in space. We urgently need to develop a more circular space economy.

How will this work exactly, will you have your servicer spacecraft continuously, or from time to time, in orbit? Does it land again every time after a mission?

Luc Piguet: Some servicers, like ClearSpace-1, may perform a single mission for one client space object. Others, like the servicers being designed for our GEO life extension program and for the debris removal mission for the UK Space Agency (UKSA), will be designed to travel from one client to another, and may be stored in a parking orbit between missions.

The servicer sizes will vary, depending on the specific requirements of the mission. The technologies ClearSpace is developing for debris removal will enable the repair and maintenance of client satellites; the details of each mission will vary depending on the particular needs of the customer.

What else is happening in this field, at both an international and European level?

Luc Piguet: There is an increasing interest in developing a stronger approach to mitigate and remedy the problem of space debris through implementing policies and debris removal missions. At the policy level, several initiatives have recently come out advocating more stringent requirements, among them the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations of the World Economic Forum, the Net Zero Space Declaration of the Paris Peace Forum, the Memorandum of Principles for Space Sustainability of the UK Earth-Space Sustainability initiative, and the ESA-initiated Zero Debris Charter.

So yes, regulations around space debris have been tightening. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has enacted a new rule that limits the duration of post-mission disposal to five years. It also imposed reporting requirements on satellite failures in licensees of large constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within 2,000 km of the Earth. Companies like OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper have already launched hundreds or even thousands of communications satellites into this region and have plans to launch even more. The US FCC has also recently fined a company for not complying with its disposal plan of a GEO satellite.

On top of this, the US Federal Aviation Administration is considering stricter rules for launch vehicles, the French regulator is revising its technical regulations and the UK is considering variable limits to operators’ liability to incentivise sustainable operations.

When it comes to implementing missions to remove derelict objects, ESA, the UK, and Japan have been leading the efforts. The first missions to remove derelict hardware from orbit will launch in the coming years. The US could follow with the ORBITS Act which is currently under consideration by the Congress. There are also several ongoing and upcoming commercial missions pioneering the development of in-orbit servicing.

What are the specific actions that enterprises and universities could do together in synergy?

Luc Piguet: Academia and the industry can work together in advancing our understanding of the space environment and our actions therein. Together, they can bring the necessary evidence to improve policies and regulations. Industry can also leverage technical expertise in academia and benefit from state-of-the-art research to create innovative solutions to improve the safety and sustainability of space operations.

What are the perspectives for the future, will there be a next ClearSpace mission?

Luc Piguet: Of course! ClearSpace-1 is only a first trailblazing mission. Our aim is to revolutionise the way space missions are conducted and make satellite disposal a routine commercial activity. Addressing the increasing congestion and collision risk in orbit will necessitate both the removal of dangerous legacy objects and continuous disposal of failed satellites.

Additionally, the introduction of further services intended to extend and expand the use of existing and future assets in space will help move beyond the notion of a single-use, disposable spacecraft.

Can the EU do more?

Luc Piguet: The EU, as a major actor in space, can help in creating the necessary demand signal for the debris removal industry to fully take off: the incentives for debris removal are growing, but the industry is still in its infancy. ClearSpace believes that the commercial space community is becoming aware of the real risks and impacts that debris represents. Organizations like ESA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the UKSA are leading the way in stimulating development of the necessary technologies to make in-orbit servicing, including debris removal, a normal aspect of space operations.

The EU can also implement design features to facilitate removal on the assets it owns and contract companies to remove its satellites when they cannot be deorbited by themselves. For example, it could require all failed satellites of the EU IRIS2 constellation to be deorbited by a commercial service provider.

Generally, the EU has a major role to play to harmonise requirements and practices in the Union. It can ensure best practices on the design and operations of safe and sustainable space missions are implemented. It can also facilitate the realisation of servicing missions, such as debris removal, across Member States, by simplifying the authorisation process by putting standard frameworks in place, notably to address questions associated with third-party liability.

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