The total mass of space debris in the low Earth orbit region is estimated to be close to 2,500 tons. About half of this mass is composed by rocket upper stages clustered in high inclination orbital regions. Because they are grouped in a relatively small number of families, acquiring the capability to deorbit just a few upper stage types would lead the way towards the elimination of hundreds of tons of debris material in the future. The goal of the LEOSWEEP project (improving Low Earth Orbit Security With Enhanced Electric Propulsion) is to demonstrate the technological feasibility of a first active removal mission of a Ukrainian rocket upper stage, prove its economic viability, and propose a convincing legal and policy implementation to “kick-start” large-scale active debris removal activities in Ukraine, Europe and other space faring nations in the future.
The recently proposed Ion Beam Shepherd (IBS) concept is employed as the key removal technology where the use of ionic beams provide an efficient and low-risk contactless manipulation of the debris to be deorbited. In order to prove the feasibility of the proposed solution and prepare for its future implementation a series of key milestones will be achieved:
- a detailed understanding of the physics underlining the concept,
- the identification of key technological challenges and concrete solutions,
- the assessment of the concept capability in dealing with large-scale removal operations,
- the development of ground-based laboratory experiments,
- the definition of a clear technology and policy development roadmap,
- the pre-phase A design of a small technology demonstration mission and
- the exploitation and dissemination of the proposal outcomes.
A world-class international team of universities and industrial partners from Europe and Ukraine has been formed in order to perform this study with a high level of theoretical and technical expertise in all relevant fields.