Dec. 9 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency has agreed to fund a mission to remove a piece of space debris -- the first of its kind -- as part of the agency's new Space Safety program.
The mission, announced Monday, will be executed by a consortium of aerospace companies, led by the Swiss startup Clearspace, which was founded by a group of space debris researchers working at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne research institute, EPFL.
ESA expects the mission to launch in 2025.
"This is the right time for such a mission," Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace, said in a news update from ESA. "The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before. Today we have nearly 2,000 live satellites in space and more than 3,000 failed ones."
Currently, scientists with the U.S. military and space agencies around the globe use tracking data and probability models to help active government-owned and private satellites avoid pieces of junk. But the problem of space debris is getting worse.
The growth of the private space industry and the shrinking of satellite technology has made it cheaper and easier to launch a satellite than ever before. Every year, hundreds of new satellites are sent into space.
Many experts predict low Earth orbit will eventually become so crowded that more interventionist methods will be necessary -- in other words, debris removal.
To demonstrate the feasibility of space debris removal, engineers with the ClearSpace-1 mission will launch a four-armed robotic junk collector to retrieve Vespa, a small satellite launched by ESA in 2013. Vespa, though defunct, remains in orbit around Earth at a distance of 497 miles.
At a meeting held in Seville, Spain, at the end of November, ESA leaders agreed that the growing problem of space junk required action.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue. ESA's Member States have given their strong support to this new mission, which also points the way forward to essential new commercial services in the future."
Space agencies, aerospace companies and a variety of research institutions continue to work to improve guidelines for space launches in order minimize the impacts of new satellites and spacecraft on low Earth orbit congestion.
But even if all launches were called off today, low Earth orbit will continue to get increasingly dangerous for active satellites. When pieces of debris collide and break apart, the shrapnel scatters and increases the odds of future collisions -- a cascading effect.
Data collected by the U.S. government shows congestion in low Earth orbit gets worse every day.
"We're at a tipping point right now," John Crassidis, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Buffalo, told UPI earlier this year.
Some space junk experts suggest low Earth orbit, LEO, could become overwhelmed by space debris within 50 years.
Once the ClearSpace-1 mission probe grabs Vespa, it will fall back into Earth's atmosphere and burn up. Such a technique for debris removal isn't economically sustainable. Experts hope future cleanup probes will be able to grab a piece of junk, deposit into the atmosphere and continue on to collect more debris.