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Ariadna Call for Ideas: Active Removal of Space Debris

Type of activity: Standard study (25 k€)

Background and motivation

For more than half a century Earth orbits have been used for a wide variety of purposes
and man-made objects, such as spacecraft, provide services that have become an integral
part of our day-to-day lives. This rapidly growing population of space objects is increasing
the risk of collisions and thus the loss of valuable assets and services.

The number of space objects has risen significantly. Currently there are less than 1000
active satellites in orbit, among more than 20 000 tracked objects (US SSN catalogue) and
an estimated 600 000 fragments larger than 1 cm [1][2]. These space debris consist of old
or malfunctioning satellites, launcher stages and fragments of these. As demonstrated by
the recent collision between Iridium-33 and Cosmos-2251, these hazards increase the
overall risk of collision of space missions in an already harsh operating environment [3], as
well as the overall operational costs (need of collision avoidance manoeuvres) [4].
It has been suggested that the removal of just a few major pieces a year would reduce the
risk for snowball like debris collision chains (Kessler syndrome) and thus improve satellite
operations [5].

Strategies for reducing the number of space debris (including intact, non-active objects)
are internationally coordinated through the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee
(IADC) and implemented at various space agencies [6]. Research is also ongoing to
extend the understanding of the debris generation mechanisms leading to a range of
measures aiming at avoiding the creation of further debris. These efforts are however not
reducing the problem of debris already in orbit.

This Call for Ideas focuses therefore on active space debris removal techniques and
concepts, which have received much less attention than debris mitigation considerations.

Current Active Space Debris Removal Concepts

Researchers and engineers devised many concepts for active space debris removal [7-
14]. Many of the concepts found in the literature are however lacking technological
readiness. For instance, some are still at the stage of the initial idea that needs to be
nurtured to more promising and feasible concepts. The relatively little attention given to
this topic has resulted in an opportunity to propose creative new ideas, to mature existing
ones further and to create the need for a more comprehensive comparison and

Currently described ideas and concepts for active debris removal can be classified into the
following categories:
- Electromagnetic methods: Electrodynamic tethers [12], magnetic sail, ...
- Capture with e.g. nets: [10-11]
- momentum exchange methods: [7], Solar sail, Drag augmentation device [13], ...

- remote methods: Lasers [7-9], ...
- modification of material properties or change of material state

Each concept has its own preferred orbital regime (LEO, MEO, GEO), and only targets
specific debris size ranges. As an example, Melamed et al provide an assessment of
concepts for debris removal in GEO [14]. It puts emphasis on a few criteria including
practicality, cost and risk.

For the purpose of this study, the most hazardous debris are considered those with a size
larger than 10 cm. These can cause catastrophic spacecraft break-ups, and they
represent also the tracking capability limit for current radar with regard to debris in LEO

The proposed reference scenario for the study is:

- removal of non-cooperating debris.
- removal in all Earth orbits, with a preference for high density areas and orbits with
high mass concentrations
- removal of single or multiple debris of size > 10 cm

Research and Study Objectives

The main aim of this Call for Ideas is to perform research on new and innovative scientific
and technical concepts and techniques for active space debris removal.

For the selected concepts or techniques, the first most important research step shall be
performed during the study.

In principle, all scientific fields of potential relevance are encouraged to propose solutions,
which should not be restricted to the classical spacecraft engineering and mission analysis
research communities.

Study Proposals

Technically, study proposals shall therefore contain in addition to the general idea
- a description of the application of the general idea in form of a concept (technical,
- a description of the current overall technology readiness level of the key aspects of
the concept
an understanding of its technical feasibility for a 2025 timeframe including a step-by-step
approach of the underlying research needed to effectively tackle the problem. (What
research is key to reach the necessary technological level?)
- Identification of possible demonstration opportunities for these technologies over
the next 15 years?

Proposers are invited to also provide additional information related to aspects such as
reliability, re-usability of the concept and removal operation duration.
While new ideas will be given preference, proposals which constitute a major improvement
of an existing concept will also be considered.
The proposed research scope needs to be feasible within the Ariadna study framework
(www.esa.int/ariadna) and constitute an important step towards reaching the goals of
active debris removal.
Proposers are strongly encouraged to underline their reasoning with references to
published papers and research results.


[1] Orbital Debris: A technical assessment. Commission on Engineering and

Technical System, National Academis Press, Washington, 1995
[2] H. Klinkrad, Space Debris: models and risk analysis, Springer, 2006
[3] C. Pardini, Analysis of the consequences in Low Earth Orbit of the collision
between Cosmos 2251 and Iridium 33. 21st ISSFD, Toulouse, France, 2009
[4] G. Beaumet, CNES operational feedbacks in collision avoidance for LEO
satellites. 21st ISSFD, Toulouse, France, 2009
[5] J.-C. Liou and N. Johnson, A Sensitivity Study of the Effectiveness of Active
Debris Removal in LEO. Acta Astronautica, Volume 64, Issues 2-3, Pp. 236-
243, 2009
[6] H. Klinkrad (ed.), ESA space debris mitigation handbook, 2nd ed. (With
[7] M. Marti-Marques, Space Debris Remover at GEO Orbit. 55th International
Astronautical Congress, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2004
[8] C.R. Phipps, J.P. Reilly, ORION: Clearing near-Earth space debris in two
years using a 30-kW repetitively-pulsed laser, Proc. of SPIE, Vol. 3092,
p728, 1997
[9] J.T. Early, C. Bibeau, C. Phipps, Space debris de-orbiting by vaporization
impulse using short pulse laser. Proc. of SPIE, Vol. 5448, p441-449, 2004
[10] Shin-Ichiro Nishida, Satomi Kawamoto, Yasushi Okawa, Fuyuto Terui and
Shoji Kitamura, Space debris removal system using a small satellite. Acta
Astronautica, Volume 65, Issues 1-2, Pages 95-102, 2009
[11] ESA General Studies Program, Robotic Geostationary Orbit Restorer
(ROGER). GSP Final Report 01/N30.
[12] C. Pardini, T. Hanada, P.H. Krisko, Benefits and Risks of Using
Electrodynamic Tethers to De-orbit Spacecraft. 57th International
Astronautical Congress, Valencia, Spain, 2006
[13] D.C. Maessen, E.D. van Breukelen, B.T.C. Zandbergen, O.K. Bergsma,
Development of a Generic Inflatable De-Orbit Device for Cubesats. 58th
International Astronautical Congress, Hyderabad, India, 2007
[14] N. Melamed, C. P. Griffice, V. Chobotov, Survey of GEO Debris Removal
Concepts. 59th International Astronautical Congress, Glasgow, Scotland,
[15] Position paper on Orbital Debris, Space debris subcommittee of the
International Academy of Astronautics, 1999
[16] Spaceguard Central Node: http://spaceguard.esa.int