ESA’s proposed e.Deorbit mission, shown left, using a robotic arm to catch a derelict satellite. [Image credits  ESA–David Ducros, 2016/]

European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a project of making a space servicing vehicle equipped with robotic arm that can perform satellites-servicing tasks like refueling, refurbishing, and boosting of satellites already in orbit.

Called as 'e.Deorbit', the space-vehicle would be a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of a satellite with the agility, capability and autonomy to perform all kinds of complex tasks in space, such as refuelling high-value satellites reaching the end of their lives, adding new equipment to them, or attaching to them to move them to new orbits.

According to the ESA press announcement, the proposed e.Deorbit was first introduced in 2013 to safely deorbit the derelict [unused or abandoned] ESA-operated satellite called 'Envisat', which is still orbiting in highly trafficked low-Earth orbit (LEO). Envisat stopped working in 2012 without any notice. After losing contact with the satellite on 8 April 2012, ESA formally announced the end of Envisat's mission on 9 May 2012.

e.Deorbit will be the first-ever active debris removal mission - capturing the satellite in a net attached to a tether (as in image below).

A capture concept being explored through ESA's e.Deorbit [Image credits  ESA–David Ducros, 2016/] 

The e.Deorbit mission is conceived under the Clean Space initiative, through which ESA aims to remove active space debris. The aim of this mission is to remove a single large ESA-owned debris from orbit, which will be the first-ever active debris removal mission. The mission was presented at ESA's Council meeting at Ministerial level, Lucerne, 1-2 December 2016.

[Image credits  ESA–David Ducros, 2016/]

In current ongoing race for megaconstellation of satellites, any failing satellite that breaks ranks might threaten the entire constellation around it, so dedicated space servicing vehicles especially tailored for the role could well play an essential ‘sheepdog’ role within megaconstellations, says ESA.

"Active debris removal is seen as particularly valuable for the imminent age of megaconstellations, when hundreds or even thousands of satellites will be formation flying in low orbits to offer low-latency telecommunications or global high-repeat Earth observation coverage.", ESA added.

“Today we have the funding to develop relevant technologies but not to actually remove a defunct satellite,” explained in a statement Luisa Innocenti, head of the Clean Space initiative. “Instead, we have asked industry to make proposals to remove a defunct ESA object while demonstrating in-orbit servicing – the new path to a potentially very valuable business.”


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