Russia Sets 2030 Timeline To Launch Its Nuclear-Powered Zeus Tug That Can Clean Mounting Space Debris

A graphical representation of Russia’s nuclear-powered space tug, Zeus

By Parth Satam,
Published by The Eurasian Times, 20 April 2023

Russian space agency Roscosmos is considering using the Zevs (Zeus) nuclear tug for cleaning up orbits flooded with space debris. The agency’s CEO, Yuri Borisov, made the announcement at the Tsiolkovsky International Space Films and Programs Festival in Kaluga.

The statement comes as Russia has been the center of global criticism for the last two years for adding to the space debris problem by blowing up its own satellites in anti-satellite tests. 

Interestingly, this is another role envisaged for the under-development Zeus. The Zeus nuclear-powered space tug was designed for deep space flights from one orbit to another

In July 2021, Russian scientists released a paper showing that the tug could also double up for military roles like firing Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) at enemy aircraft and as a surveillance and reconnaissance platform transmitting information to anti-aircraft systems. 

Under development since 2010, Zeus’s preliminary design is expected to be finished by July 2024 and cost 4.2 billion Rubles (US$57.3 million). The tug is expected to be sent into space for test flights in 2030.

New Role – Clean Space Junk

On the sidelines of the film festival, Borisov was quoted in a TASS report, saying, “We are considering various ways of cleaning up orbits. We have a program for building a nuclear-powered tug, Zevs. By 2030, we hope to have this product ready. With its powerful energy resource, it will be able to change orbits. There is an idea to use this tug to clean up at least the geostationary highly elliptical orbits.”

Possible methods of disposing of the space debris Borisov mentioned were taking them into deep space or collecting them for disposal.

Svetla Ben-Itzhak, an assistant professor of space and international relations at the West Space Seminar in Air University however, told the EurAsian Times that Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA) too have “developed and have tested various methods for removing orbital debris.”

On December 2019, the ESA awarded a contract to Swiss start-up ClearSpace, for the ClearSpace-1 mission in 2025, following a competitive bidding process. 

The goal is to remove the 100 kilograms of ESA satellite Proba-V that has been in orbit since 2013. “ClearSpace-1 will meet its target, grasp it using four robotic arms, and tow it into the Earth’s atmosphere where both spacecraft will burn up,” said a report in The Guardian

Japan, too, has been pioneering space debris removal technology. Private company Astroscale in August 2021, claimed to have carried out “the world’s first commercial mission (of) space debris docking and removal.”

Comprising two satellites tied together – one designed to remove debris from orbit and one to simulate the debris – it was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March 2021. This demonstration was described as a “test capture.” 

The spacecraft removing the debris is equipped with proximity sensors and a magnetic docking mechanism. The simulation involved the ‘servicer vehicle’ repeatedly docking with and releasing the client vehicle. 

Russia Has Added To Space Debris

The announcement comes after the October 2022 incident when the International Space Station (ISS) had to undertake an evasive maneuver to dodge some stray debris from Russia’s own November 15, 2021, anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test. 

That test, which generated 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, involved Russia firing a PL-19 Nudol anti-ballistic missile interceptor that knocked its own Cosmos 1408 electronic intelligence satellite at 480 kilometers (300 miles) from the Earth that had been in orbit since 1982.

Again on January 4 this year, a mysterious Russian satellite, Cosmos 2499, exploded in space, creating 85 stray pieces of debris. 

Brian Weeden, a space-debris expert at the Secure World Foundation, told ArsTechnica that he doesn’t believe it was a collision.  

“This suggests to me that perhaps these events are the result of a design error in the fuel tanks or other systems that are rupturing after several years in space rather than something like a collision with a piece of debris,” Weeden said.

That also validates a preliminary analysis by LeoLabs, a company that tracks objects in Earth’s orbit. The company tweeted that its early data “points toward a low-intensity explosion,” likely from the satellite’s propulsion system.

Still Only On Paper

Meanwhile, Russian technology is still far from demonstrating any practical ability as it is a system still under development. 

Moreover, the space junk cleaning role is not a primary function. Its other secondary purposes would have to be rigorously tested. 

By then, the Earth would have probably reached a stage where space debris and defunct satellites would have increased manifold, the kind portrayed in science fiction movies. 

Such a scenario would probably entail large-scale space cleaning where countries would be allowed to indiscriminately pick up confirmed and designated space trash of other countries. 

Until then, they can pick up only their own debris, as space trash is also considered a nation’s sovereign national property. Ben-Itzhak points to the Outer Space Treaty’s Article 8, which disallows nations from infringing upon another state’s national property/sovereignty, including orbital debris (unless officially agreed upon). 

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