The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office has been informed by the United States 18th Space Defense Squadron that untrackable space junk may have been detected in the vicinity of a payload adapter working on a ClearSpace-1 mission.

This adapter, named VESPA, was left in orbit following the 2013 launch of a Vega rocket from ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The object is a 113 kg, two-metre-diameter, conical upper portion of a payload adapter associated with the VV02 Vega launch that delivered the Proba-V, VNREDSat-1 and ESTCube-1 satellites into Earth orbit.

ClearSpace-1 active space debris removal mission

The new debris is believed to originate from the VESPA adapter, which is in an orbit with perigee at 660 km altitude, apogee at 790 km and an inclination of 98.72 degrees.

This payload adapter is the subject of the upcoming ClearSpace-1 active space debris removal (ADR) mission. It is being developed as the first-ever mission to remove an existing derelict object from orbit through highly precise and complex, close-proximity and capture operations.

ESA procured the ClearSpace-1 mission as a service from ClearSpace in order to demonstrate the technologies needed for debris removal and as a first step to establishing a new, sustainable and striving commercial space ecosystem.

The information currently available indicates that the most likely cause of the event was the hypervelocity impact of a small, untracked object that resulted in a low-energy release of new fragments. A preliminary assessment indicates that the increased collision risk to other missions posed by these fragments is extremely low.

Space Defense Squadron tracking

The US 18th Space Defense Squadron has conducted further tracking, and the TIRA system of the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques in Germany and the Polish “European Optical Network” members (under ESA contract) have also conducted independent observations. These observations indicate that the main object appears as intact and has not experienced significant alteration to its orbit.

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. A full analysis will last for several weeks.

Image: Artistic impression of the ClearSpace-1 mission with captured Vespa. Credit: ClearSpace.png
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