Swiss Space Center at EPFL just launched the
Swiss Space Center at EPFL just launched the "CleanSpace One" project. (youtube/epflnews)

Swiss scientists say they plan to launch a "janitor satellite" specially designed to get rid of orbiting debris known as space junk.

The 10-million-franc (£7.6m) satellite CleanSpace One - the prototype for a family of such satellites - is being built by the Swiss Space Centre at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, or EPFL.

EPFL said its launch would take place within the next three to five years and its first tasks will be to grab hold of two Swiss satellites launched in 2009 and 2010.

According to the US space agency Nasa, more than 500,000 pieces of spent rocket stages, broken satellites and other debris are being tracked as they orbit Earth at a speed fast enough to damage either a satellite or spacecraft.

In 2009, the American satellite Iridium collided in space with debris from the inactive Russian satellite Cosmos.

The collision sent an additional 2,000 pieces of debris into the atmosphere, destroying a £35m satellite.

Debris in space adds to the cost of insuring an active satellite, which currently stands at £12bn, with the prospect of a collision likely to occur.