A piece of space debris being monitored by the European Space Agency as part of a mission to remove trash from space was hit by another piece of debris, splintering the object into more pieces.
(Bloomberg) — A piece of space debris being monitored by the European Space Agency as part of a mission to remove trash from space was hit by another piece of debris, splintering the object into more pieces.
ESA confirmed Tuesday that the US’s 18th Space Defense Squadron, which tracks objects in orbit, spotted a number of new pieces in the vicinity of a payload adapter named VESPA that the agency had planned to pluck from space. The most likely cause of those new fragments is “the hypervelocity impact of a small, untracked object” ramming into VESPA, according to ESA.
VESPA was left over from the launch of a European Vega rocket that took off from South America in 2013. It was part of a cone-shaped attachment used to deploy the rocket’s satellite into orbit, and has been in Earth’s orbit ever since. ESA said its new fragments don’t pose much of a risk to any other spacecraft at the moment.
ESA has been keeping tabs on this piece of space junk for its planned ClearSpace-1 mission in 2026. It would have been the first to be captured and removed from orbit. Most missions that have evaluated debris removal technologies in space have targeted test pieces of debris instead of junk already in space.
It may seem like an ironic turn of events, but ESA sees it as the best form of validation. “This fragmentation event underlines the relevance of the ClearSpace-1 mission,” ESA wrote in a statement. “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.”
The orbital environment around Earth has grown more crowded with every passing year. The number of active satellites in orbit has roughly quadrupled since 2019, thanks in large part to the multiple launches of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The US Department of Defense is tracking more than 27,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit, according to NASA, while there are millions more pieces that cannot be tracked with operational sensors.
ESA will spend several weeks analyzing the impact to figure out how it will impact ClearSpace-1, but the plan is to still move forward with developing the mission.
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