ESA to Launch Space Junk Claw

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The European Space Agency has announced plans to launch a space claw, which latches on to pieces of space junk, then drags the junk into a fiery death in Earth’s atmosphere. My question – what is the difference between something which can destroy space junk, and a satellite killer?

European Space Agency will launch giant claw that drags space junk to its doom

No, really. It’s signed a contract to make this happen in the year 2025

Simon Sharwood, APAC Editor Fri 27 Nov 2020 // 04:01 UTC

The European Space Agency has formalised its plan to dispose of space junk by using an orbiting claw to grab an old bit of rocket before dragging both the claw and the junk to a fiery doom.

The agency announced the plan in late 2019 when it revealed it had asked Swiss startup ClearSpace to fully scope the mission.

The paperwork was due in March and found favour with the ESA’s Ministerial Council, which has approved funding for an €86 million contract to fund the mission.

The goal remains the same: fly ClearSpace’s junk-grabbing claw to intercept a VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) that’s orbited since a 2013 launch of an ESA Vega rocket.

Read more:

The ESA official announcement is available here.

Obviously I am not suggesting the ESA has hostile intentions towards US space assets, but there is always a possibility that another less friendly party will hack their system, steal their technology, or develop their own version.

Luckily the USA has a space force, to evaluate and protect US space assets from potential threats.

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Ben Dhyani
November 27, 2020 10:47 pm

While it is true it could be used to destroy active spacecraft, it would be an expensive way of doing it, why not just use an explosive homing device? I am quite sure there are many such devices up there that could be used in the case of conflict to be maneuvered to come along side their targets before detonating.

Bryan A
Reply to  Ben Dhyani
November 27, 2020 11:29 pm
Not only could it be used to grab enemy satellites, it could be used to purposefully weaponize them by placing an explosive warhead in the tip and dropping both on Tehran or Pyongyang
Or Washington D.C. or Moscow or Beijing, any nation considered an enemy.

Ed Zuiderwijk
Reply to  Bryan A
November 28, 2020 2:37 am

You must be working for SPECTRE.

Reply to  Ed Zuiderwijk
November 28, 2020 4:32 am

Yes, Ed, in the “Fantastically Unnecessary, Redundant, Fallacious & Illogically Expensive” department.
“FURFIE” for short.

Reply to  Bryan A
November 28, 2020 4:23 am

You write: _”Not only could it be used to grab enemy satellites, it could be used to purposefully weaponize them”_

What can this achieve that a simple (possibly clandestine) ICBM/IRBM cannot achieve, considering that the identities of all significant objects Earth in orbit are known internationally already, along with their precise orbital parameters?
This also would be fantastically costly, more expensive than just an ICBM, as ICBMs start towards their targets from launch. They are headed directly, ballistically for their target at apogee. That’s the “B” in “ICBM”. On the other hand, J-random satellite in orbit is nowhere near a trajectory to attack a specific target like a city. This means you would have to steer the satellite, along with de-orbiting it. Steering satellites around in space, i.e. dynamically changing their orbital parameters, as you are proposing, is one of the most expensive things in the world, literally. Almost as expensive as nuclear weapons.

It would cost a tiny fraction of this to quietly fill a port-warehouse in a city full of ANFO.

Reply to  Joe
November 28, 2020 5:55 am

What can this achieve that a simple (possibly clandestine) ICBM/IRBM cannot achieve . . .

Removal of space-junk. And if the OP has OPined correctly, multi versus single usage scenarios.

Reply to  Bryan A
November 28, 2020 9:47 am

What good would a warhead that buns up in re-entry do?

Reply to  Ben Dhyani
November 28, 2020 12:50 am

Far more important matter
There is going to be a gap of several years in our ability to measure the thickness of ice at the top and bottom of the world.
The only two satellites dedicated to observing the poles are almost certain to die before replacements are flown.

Reply to  Vuk
November 28, 2020 1:22 am

That’s ok, Vuk, it’s climate science, they’ll just continue to make stuff up

Steve Keohane
Reply to  Redge
November 28, 2020 5:07 am

The models will still work….

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Steve Keohane
November 28, 2020 8:46 am

“Work” is a relative term.

Reply to  Vuk
November 28, 2020 2:23 am

I am sure Griff will just make up numbers which we can all believe 🙂

Reply to  LdB
November 28, 2020 4:06 am

Yes. Griff is truly incredible.

Reply to  LdB
November 28, 2020 5:44 am

There you go again, doing his PR work for him. Even when he is silent you have to bring him up and ensure the presence of his ideas on WUWT.

How about letting go of your obsession and find something relevant to say.

Reply to  Greg
November 28, 2020 8:03 am

Refuting bald-faced lies in climate science is relevant.
And being prescient is advantageous.

Reply to  Vuk
November 28, 2020 5:54 am

I’m guessing the US, Russian and Chinese military will have this information from their own satellites. Would be hard to believe all three countries’ navies don’t consider this need-to-know information for their submarine fleets.

Whether it would be made public is another question.

Joe D
Reply to  Ben Dhyani
November 28, 2020 8:16 am

Exploding things creates a zillion little ballistic missiles that can damage ALL satellites.

And even an unused satellite, if it gets hit by another piece of satellite, will be broken apart and create yet more parts orbiting in space. And in spite of all the vastness of the space above our planet, there have even been collisions between whole satellites. It has the potential for a cascading effect that could potentially make all satellites very short lived in orbit.

Reply to  Joe D
November 28, 2020 10:00 am

The exploding satellite comment was in response to the notion of destroying an enemies satellite, not to the notion of getting rid of space junk.

Both the US and China have demonstrated the ability to destroy objects in orbit.
The US destroyed a satellite that was within a few orbits of coming down on it’s own. All of the debris burned up within a few days.
The Chinese destroyed a satellite that was in a higher orbit and most of the debris is still up there.

Joel O'Bryan
November 27, 2020 11:02 pm

Like the climate scam… de-orbiting LEO junk is a humongous waste of tax dollars.
If you want a real ROI, then de-orbit MEO/HEO junk.

Anyone who understands the issues and orbit altitudes knows this.

Paul C
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
November 28, 2020 4:59 am

Yes, dragging it into re-entry a bit earlier than its orbital decay would do anyway is pointless. It is not even the large items that are the biggest problem – they are all tracked. The small/tiny items in higher orbits colliding with each other and other objects are nasty. The odd loose nut or bolt colliding head on with you or your satellite at (2x) orbital speeds is not a pleasant prospect.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
November 28, 2020 10:03 am

Even objects in LEO can still remain in orbit for many decades.

Because LEO is where most of the activity is, that’s where most of the junk is.

Paul Penrose
Reply to  MarkW
November 30, 2020 10:52 am

Not only that, but MEO and HEO are vastly larger areas which drastically decreases the risk of collisions. Obsolete sats can be safely parked out there for the time being. Sometime in the next couple of hundred years they will be salvaged for their raw materials.

Izaak Walton
November 27, 2020 11:12 pm

China has demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites using ground based lasers. Similarly the USA, Russia and India have also demonstrated satellite destroying missiles. The US space force is unlikely to be effective in protecting satellites.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Izaak Walton
November 27, 2020 11:18 pm

You have zero idea of what you are talking about Izaak Boy. Really.
Just stop talking. Now.

Dodgy Geezer
Reply to  Izaak Walton
November 28, 2020 1:43 am

That depends. Have we got any good German rocket scientists left?

Bryan A
November 27, 2020 11:15 pm

So long as they de-orbit all Chinese Junk first. Only “Developed Nations” should have spy satellites. Developing Nations haven’t sufficiently “Developed” the technology yet.

November 28, 2020 12:57 am

The University of Surrey, UK, have been working on this for years.

Yes it could be used to destroy a functioning satellite, but just wreaking a satellite is easier than dragging it into re-entry.

Alexy Scherbakoff
November 28, 2020 1:03 am

Nearly ten years ago the Chinese tested a rocket that shot down a satellite.

Joe D
Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
November 28, 2020 8:12 am

The big problem is not that they “shot it down”. Rather, that they exploded it, making a zillion little parts that can damage other satellites and rockets.
If a country didn’t have plans to use satellites much in the future, I can see the goal of doing that to hurt other country’s efforts. But, China has plenty of satellite technology up there. So, perhaps it was just foolishness.

Bill Parsons
Reply to  Joe D
November 28, 2020 10:13 am

There is either a contingent of very young or very old contributors to WUWT – with either no – or very short – memories.

The Chinese experiment with “shooting down” a satellite was a catastrophe if the goal was to eliminate space junk – which IS a very real problem.

I sometimes wonder about the role of moderators or Anthony himself in letting bad ideas propagate. Why even post an article like this if all it gets are these kinds of responses?

Reply to  Bill Parsons
November 28, 2020 1:34 pm

Speaking about idiotic responses, nobody said or even implied that when the Chinese shot down a satellite, getting rid of space junk was their objective. Where you came up with that gem I don’t know, perhaps you were so offended at reading stuff you found to be beneath you, you didn’t actually take the effort to understand what you were reading.

Bill Parsons
Reply to  MarkW
November 28, 2020 9:13 pm

Breathe, Mark.

Bill Parsons
Reply to  Bill Parsons
November 28, 2020 10:02 pm

“Speaking about idiotic responses, nobody said or even implied that when the Chinese shot down a satellite, getting rid of space junk was their objective.”

Not claiming that the Chinese were looking for an altruistic way to benefit the community of users – they demonstrated their technical prowess and willingness to use it to play a zero sum game. It was a stupid, destructive gesture that they haven’t repeated to my knowledge. Hopefully no one who is suggesting it (above) is serious about making the same mistake.

November 28, 2020 1:26 am

I’m sure it can be justified by using the Cvd-19 pretence, everything else is.

Mark - Helsinki
November 28, 2020 1:31 am

Why not just hack the satellite directly, if you can hack the claw, you might as well try hack the satellite and trash its systems making it inoperable.

Why hack a junk claw and where you also need the wherewithal to direct it to a satellite to trash it, and it’s probably going to be detected almost immediately, as the claw starts moving to where its not meant to be.

Any nation on the planet having a dominant space weapons network.. should scare anyone. It’s not only other nations that would be under threat, but the very citizens of that nation too, how does one contest a a criminal government with space weapons?

Ed Zuiderwijk
Reply to  Mark - Helsinki
November 28, 2020 2:33 am

I see great potential for an orbiting metal crusher.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Ed Zuiderwijk
November 28, 2020 8:50 am

They could call it “The Craw”

Ron Long
November 28, 2020 2:00 am

Eric, the “fiery death” is not like even a moderate cremation. A quick check shows at least 20% of a typical satellite survives unplanned re-entry and hits the earth, and NASA says there is an average of one such incident every day (sometimes it’s only booster rocket parts, etc). So the Euros need good insurance if they do this on purpose as they will eventually hit somebodies house. Our new Space Force almost certainly has some ideas about satellite protection.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Ron Long
November 28, 2020 8:54 am

Do you think the Harris administration is going to let anything Trump survive?

Ed Zuiderwijk
November 28, 2020 2:30 am

It should be called PacMan.

November 28, 2020 2:36 am

An expensive solution to a non-problem. If we stop leaving junk up there, all the existing objects will reenter the atmosphere sooner or later.

Craig from Oz
Reply to  Roger.
November 28, 2020 3:46 am


I see this as a virtual signaling cheap stunt for a real problem.

86million Euro isn’t that impressive in context, and the majority of junk in space is actually quite small.

For this to be useful they are going to need tens of thousands of these ‘claws’.

Reply to  Craig from Oz
November 28, 2020 4:27 am

You write: _”For this to be useful they are going to need tens of thousands of these ‘claws’.”_
Indeed they are, and if just one of these catastrophically malfunctions, it will reverse the process and make more orbital debris than an army of claws could recover in 10 years.

Reply to  Craig from Oz
November 28, 2020 5:53 am

Yes, this just looks like virtue signalling. It is not the known, large objects which are the greatest hazard statistically.

A highly expensive one off intervention. Unclear why they really want to do this. Oh, grant money, OK.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Greg
November 28, 2020 8:52 am

Maybe a giant vacuum cleaner would be better. Then they could clean the… vacuum. Oh never mind.

Harry Davidson
November 28, 2020 4:50 am

” What is the difference between something which can destroy space junk, and a satellite killer?”. Dear me! It is the EU doing this, does Mr. Worrall not know that everything the EU does is , by definition, virtuous. If it should be used to destroy a satellite it will only one that needed to be destroyed, probably because it was disseminating child porn or being used for money laundering. I hope that answers the question.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Harry Davidson
November 28, 2020 8:55 am

It probably almost raped someone in the 70s.

November 28, 2020 5:44 am

“what is the difference between something which can destroy space junk, and a satellite killer?”

I assume the space junk is being destroyed in the atmosphere, the satellite killers turn one satellite into a huge number of pieces of space debris.

Thank you China, for displaying that you guys have a bunch of idiots in your space program:

Thank you India, after the China flap what were you thinking? I assume this was done by home-grown idiots.

Reply to  Ric Werme
November 28, 2020 7:39 am

Well said.

November 28, 2020 6:02 am

I know some satellites launched today along with their boosters have provisions to de-orbit themselves at end of life. I haven’t kept up with it other than reading about each mission and it is pointed out. There may be a paper or site that tracks which launches do and don’t. Most all low earth orbit satellites will given enough time.

It certainly would have been cheaper to design this capability into the rocket body they want to bring down in the first place.

Reply to  rbabcock
November 28, 2020 10:14 am

The problem is that not all satellites stay operational long enough for the de-orbit program to be run.

When the US destroyed a satellite that was about to re-enter a few years ago, this was the case. In that case the satellite never made it to it’s proper orbit and was coming down out of control. The big worry was that the hydrazine tank would make it through the atmosphere intact and if it came down near a city, could poison large numbers of people.

The debris from that collision either followed the orbit of the satellite in which case it burned up in a couple of days, or it followed the orbit of the satellite “killer” which was in a highly elliptical orbit and burned up on the next orbit.

Bruce Cobb
November 28, 2020 6:35 am

“Who’s in charge here?”
“The Clawwwwww!”

George V
November 28, 2020 6:52 am

Where have I heard of this before? Is it because You Only Live Twice?

November 28, 2020 7:05 am

Having enough fuel for a junk collector to intercept the orbits of a very few objects is big difficulty.

Reply to  DMacKenzie
November 28, 2020 10:16 am

From the description, this “junk collector” is only designed to take care of a single object.

Bill Parsons
Reply to  DMacKenzie
November 28, 2020 10:40 am

Suffice it to say they haven’t deployed my “Kevlar Catcher’s Mitt”. I guess that raises the question…

Would a near-stationary satellite be able to reposition itself into the path of the most dangerous objects? Or does it have to match the orbits of circulating junk? To be financially viable, one mission must last over many years, using the least amount of fuel to reposition, and to bring down the largest number of objects before it would be decommissioned itself and fall out of orbit.

To slow the orbiting junk, it might have to deploy a variety of methods. Gas clouds looks like a good idea.

Reply to  Bill Parsons
November 29, 2020 9:08 am

I thought something more like an aerogel, for small junk. Nothing up there is “stationary”, and if you’re standing still, the junk is approaching at thousands of mules per hour, depending. At those speeds, a nut or bolt is a bullet. Best is probably to match the orbit of “clouds”, and try to “catch” as much as can be. Some kind of catcher sheet (foam? Mesh?) may do the job, but I think work needs to be done.

November 28, 2020 7:06 am

Unbelievably stupid article.

There are far more cost effective ways, near mind that a junk collector will be at completely different orbital altitudes to viable satalites.

And why not the already deployed arms on shuttles and the like. Clearly, this is on hear because of anti-europe bias.

Reply to  Dan
November 28, 2020 7:36 am

It’s the worst article I’ve ever read on this site. It makes WUWT look stupid as do a lot of the ignorant comments.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Rusty
November 28, 2020 8:46 am

It’s the worst article ever composed by semi-literate bipeds and it makes Dementia Joe Biden look highly lucid!

Oh wait, I got carried away by the sentiment. What exactly is wrong with it again?

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Rusty
November 28, 2020 8:58 am

The article wasn’t written by anyone from WUWT. I think it’s clear it was placed here for ridicule.

Flight Level
November 28, 2020 7:17 am

“Swiss startup” related to ecofriendly space junk collection?

Nothing to worry there. It will be all over even before subsides are fully depleted.

Gordon A. Dressler
November 28, 2020 7:41 am

According to Wikipedia, currently orbiting Earth are approximately 900,000 pieces of space debris ranging from one to ten cm in maximum dimension and there are about 34,000 debris pieces having a maximum dimension equal to or greater than 10 cm (this later size category classified as “large debris”).

Each piece of large debris has its own individual orbit that any proposed capture spacecraft must be able to match precisely in order to have an extendable “claw” grab it. Thus, unless the capture spacecraft carries a GINORMOUS amount of orbital plane change/orbital synchronization maneuvering propellant, it is almost certainly the case of one capture spacecraft per one piece of large space debris removed.

Therefore, using 3,400 such spacecraft (with the associated launch vehicle count) would cost at least $680 million (USD), just based on a widely optimistic cost of $0.2 million per mission (taking advantage of the projected “economy of mass production”, don’t ya know). BUT this will only remove 10% of the existing large space debris . . . basically, a drop in the bucket.

And launching those 3,400 capture spacecraft a a rate of one per day would take 9.3 YEARS.

I need not go so far as to comment on the possible environmental damage to Earth’s atmosphere that could result from those 3,400 spacecraft launches (you know, with the second stage boosters typically re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and BURNING UP). 😉

Lastly, I am quite surprised that ESA would release a PR such as that above. Perhaps their public relations and marketing offices could not find a couple of systems engineers to review the piece? . . . after all, the above issues ARE rocket science.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
November 29, 2020 9:12 am

I’d guess they want to get the taste of Ariene Failures off the front page of the search engines, but I’m cynical like that.

November 28, 2020 7:46 am

They could’ve tried to train the Giant Claw (it was from space):

November 28, 2020 8:08 am

To their credit, at least space junk has been proven to exist, as contrasted with efforts to send big nets out into the Pacific to round up the ‘floating plastic pile that’s the size of Texas.’

Mr Bliss
November 28, 2020 9:03 am

And how long before “The Claw” becomes sentient – and realises that if humans didn’t exist – there would be no space debris?

November 28, 2020 9:56 am

I’ve wondered about the efficiency of launching a satellite into an orbit that goes in the opposite direction as all the other satellites (retrograde??). Have that satellite release a cloud of gas and then de-orbit itself.

The smaller the piece of debris is, the bigger the effect running into this cloud would have on it’s orbital velocity. The small stuff is the most dangerous because there is more of it, and none of it is being tracked.

You don’t have to provide enough energy to completely de-orbit all of the debris. Just lower it’s orbit and let the Earth’s upper atmosphere do it’s thing.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  MarkW
November 28, 2020 11:42 am


Most orbital debris reside within 1,250 miles (2,000 km) of Earth’s surface. Within this volume, the amount of debris varies significantly with altitude. The greatest concentrations of debris are found near 500-530 miles (800-850 km) — source:,(800%2D850%20km).

I gently suggest you try doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the amount of gas mass needed to fill the volume of space around the Earth from about 100 miles to, say, about 600 miles altitude to a pressure of about 4E-6 psia, which would be necessary to create some significant drag on orbiting space debris. Choose the molecular weight of any gas or gas mixture that you wish to consider. The ideal gas law (PV=mRT) will suffice for this purpose, and you can just assume a uniform gas temperature of about -80 deg-C for the sake of the calculation.

An altitude of 100 km (62 miles) is generally accepted as the height at which atmospheric drag becomes essentially “negligible”, and it is often referred to as the “Kármán line”. At that altitude, the ambient pressure is about 4E-7 psi so I suggest that you use a factor of 10 higher to create some significant, albeit still very low, drag.

As a first-order approximation, disregard that (a) this quantity will need to be continuously replaced because Earth’s gravity is insufficient to retain gas at these altitudes and the gas will rapidly dissipate into space vacuum, and (b) at this low pressure it will take days to years (highly dependent on the ballistic coefficient of each specific debris piece) duration for all the orbiting debris in this volume to fully decay below 100 miles and thus burn up from “normal atmospheric” re-entry.

I am certain that the necessary gas mass will be found to be many, many orders of magnitude beyond that which any current launch vehicle can boost into LEO, prograde or retrograde orbit notwithstanding.

Tom Abbott
November 28, 2020 11:46 am

I think they ought to trash the Claw and get themselves a laser, if they want to clear debris out of low-Earth orbit.

NASA or Musk needs to build us a Solar Power Satellite to power our debris remover.

Or I guess we could buy power from the Chicoms when they get their Solar Power Satellite demonstration completed in orbit in 2030.

I prefer home-grown Solar Power Satellites, though.

I hope I gave an acceptable comment. I notice a few commenters trashing other commenter’s comments, for some reason. Maybe we should have a vote on which articles are published at WUWT? Naw, we don’t need no stinkin’ consensus! 🙂

If you don’t like an article here at WUWT, then move on to the next one, or go somewhere else. Stop complaining. It makes you look ridiculous. Good comments can come out of nowhere, all they need is a little push like using a claw to deorbit one piece of orbital debris.

If someone suggests something stupid like the Claw, then there is obviously a need to educate, and that’s what is good about publishing articles like this at WUWT. You will get educated.

old construction worker
November 28, 2020 4:55 pm

Where is Waste Management when you need them?

michael hart
November 28, 2020 7:29 pm

The question posed in the headline is a fair one, but….

.. But haven’t the Chinese been testing anti-satellite launches for many years now?
Sure, there’s supposed to be some sort of agreements against deploying such systems, but, well, it doesn’t do any harm to develop systems that could be switched to military purposes at short notice, right? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

And it’s not like all anti nuclear-proliferation agreements have been rigidly adhered to by nations like Iran, Korea etc. We can be sure that other nations are not making a public song and dance about their activities.

It’s a rum bloody do when I am pleased at the thought of resources being directed to military activities rather than being wasted at “saving the planet”.

November 29, 2020 3:40 am

Having read through this, I note that no one so far seems to have mentioned or know of

It may take a little time to learn how to grasp the controls for the interface … persevere.
You can zoom in and out (with a mouse scroll wheel) and or left click grab and rotate, try it out.
Look at About and Help, top right. Move the muse around, scroll in and out, get used to it.

You can also search, the Starlink satellites, for instance:

Phil Salmon
November 29, 2020 6:04 am
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