Two UK-based companies are designing missions to clear hazardous space debris.
ClearSpace and Astroscale have been awarded £4 million from the UK Space Agency to design missions to remove existing pieces of space debris, working with a consortium of industry partners. Once the designs are complete, the teams, along with other UK space companies, could receive further funding to see the UK’s first national space debris removal mission launch in 2026.
The UK Space Agency has also announced a new Enabling Technology Programme (ETP), with up to £15 million to support innovative space research and develop emerging space technologies across the UK.
The first of six calls will include technology for in-orbit servicing and manufacturing, which can extend the lifetime of satellites and reduce space debris. The UK Space Agency has committed £102 million over the next three years to deliver capabilities to track objects in space and reduce debris.
There are estimated to be more than 130 million pieces of space debris orbiting Earth, from tiny flecks of paint from spacecraft, to old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts. This debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and present a real danger to satellites.
“As our reliance on space technologies increases rapidly and the UK becomes a global hub of satellite design, manufacturing and launch, we are committed to leading efforts to make space more sustainable,” said Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency. “With 1,700 satellites launched last year alone, the need to safeguard the space environment for the benefit of everyone on Earth has never been more pressing.
ClearSpace has been awarded £2.25 million to conduct the next phase of a study into a mission which would remove derelict satellites from Low Earth orbit (LEO). This design phase will last until October 2023.
The Clearing the LEO Environment with Active Removal (CLEAR) mission, which will develop key technology building blocks, is a catalyst for the development of commercially viable disposal services and other in-orbit services.
“The CLEAR Mission is a vital step on the path to making the removal of space debris a reality, and will allow us to develop state-of-the-art space technologies, such as complex robotics and AI-based algorithms, within the UK. We cannot solve the challenge of space debris alone, and we are proud that 9 cutting-edge UK-based space companies – Alden Legal, AstroAgency, Critical Software, Deimos, MDA, Orbit Fab, Satellite Applications Catapult, University of Surrey – will work with us to address this issue,” said Rory Holmes, ClearSpace UK Managing Director.
Astroscale has been awarded £1.7 million to design a satellite servicer that is capable of removing multiple retired or defunct satellites in a single mission. The Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture (COSMIC) will harness Astroscale’s rendezvous and Remote Proximity Operations (RPO), and debris capture capabilities.
The COSMIC servicer will be a technological progression of Astroscale’s Sunrise programme ELSA-M servicer – a commercial partnership between the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and OneWeb. The ELSA-M multi-client debris removal space servicer will be launched ahead of the UK’s Active Debris Removal mission in late 2024.
“Astroscale, working closely with expert UK partner companies, will design a national robotic capture capability that can safely remove two defunct UK-registered satellites in Low Earth Orbit. With our proven space mission heritage and strong industrial partnerships, we can deliver the UK government’s ambitious plans to develop a sustainable space economy for the benefit of future generations. Our goal is to make in-orbit debris removal and satellite servicing routine by 2030,” said Nick Shave, Managing Director, Astroscale.
The UK has previously provided funding for the implementation of the UN Office for Outer Space Activities (UNOOSA) guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space. To achieve a safe and sustainable space environment, the UK is playing a leading role alongside UNOOSA in the adoption of these guidelines, which set out how countries and companies can help preserve the outer space environment for future generations.
The UK is also the leading contributor to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Safety programme, which provides collaboration and funding opportunities for UK scientists and industry.
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