UK Working with Global Partners to Clear Up Dangerous Space Debris


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The UK Space Agency is announcing a range of different initiatives aimed at supporting safe and sustainable space operations.

From developing our space tracking capabilities and promoting international efforts in space sustainability, to finding novel ways of removing space debris – the UK is leading the way to ensure the Earth’s orbit can continue to be used now and in the future.

Orbital congestion and space debris remains one of the biggest global challenges facing the space sector. There are currently an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris including old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts orbiting Earth.

Space debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and present a real danger to the rapidly increasing number of new satellites being launched each year. 

The projects being announced today, during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, are:

  • A collaboration between the UK Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to support the next stage of international efforts to promote space sustainability. UK Space Agency funding will support a collaborative effort to advance global awareness on space sustainability and how best to implement the UN Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTS Guidelines)
  • Two space firms, Astroscale and ClearSpace, have been awarded UK Space Agency funding to research a UK led mission to remove junk from space, supporting the government’s ambitions to be a leading nation in tackling space debris.
  • The UK Space Agency will also partner with US-based company Numerica Corporation, which will provide high-quality space surveillance and tracking (SST) data from a worldwide network of optical telescopes and state-of-the-art software solutions to help keep UK satellites safely operating.

Science Minister George Freeman said, "Growing reliance on satellites for a range of everyday utilities from SatNav to meteorology is making the space tech sector increasingly valuable to the UK economy. Our National Space Strategy sets out our vision for a thriving UK space sector that pushes the boundaries of innovation including a specific commitment to lead in clearing space debris. These new projects will support our leading role in cleaning up our orbit, which has been neglected for far too long, and will help keep satellites operating safely so they can continue to provide vital services such as communications and climate change monitoring."

Further action is being taken to improve the UK’s SST services that can predict hazards in orbit and alert satellite operators to potential collisions in space. This builds on existing work with the Ministry of Defence to bring together data and analysis for civil, military and commercial space users, as set out in the National Space Strategy.

These are just the latest developments the UK Space Agency is making in cleaning up space. In 2020 it awarded seven UK companies a share of over £1 million to help track debris in space.

In January 2021, the UK Space Agency and UNOOSA signed an initial agreement to support international efforts to promote space sustainability through a series of events and engagement activities. Today’s announcement continues this partnership.

Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of UNOOSA, said, "The democratization and intensification we see in the space sector represent encouraging news for the future. The sustainability challenges this new era creates must be addressed as a priority to ensure that the space sector can thrive. We must look at every action we take in space through the lens of sustainability, for which the LTS Guidelines provide an outstanding framework. This project, generously funded by our UK partners, will continue to share information and examples of the practical implementation of the LTS Guidelines. By amplifying existing expertise of member States and international actors, it supports the promotion of actionable solutions."

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. The programme recently awarded funding to Astroscale to develop the technology to remove a OneWeb communications satellite and to ClearSpace to implement the first-ever space mission dedicated to removing an existing object in orbit.

The UK space sector is a huge economic success story employing over 45,000 people in highly skilled jobs – from space scientists and researchers to engineers and satellite manufacturers. Government plans to strengthen the UK as a world-class space nation were set out last month in the National Space Strategy which outlines long-term plans to grow the UK space sector and consolidate the UK’s role as a science and technology superpower.

Projects in detail

Astroscale

In this feasibility study, the UK subsidiary of Astroscale, based in Harwell and specialising in satellite servicing and orbital sustainability across all orbits, will explore the development of technology to remove multiple retired satellites in a single mission.

This new national project could build on other Astroscale missions such as ELSA-M and ELSA-d, with ELSA-d already in orbit and comprising a spacecraft servicer demonstrating debris capture technology of a test satellite. The Astroscale team will work alongside partners including TAS and MDA to complement their extensive systems engineering, guidance, navigation and control (GNC), Mission Operations and Ground Segment expertise.

John Auburn, Managing Director, Astroscale Ltd, said, "The UK government is taking an important leadership role to plan the very first UK Active Debris removal mission to capture two defunct satellites in space. Astroscale’s technology is currently in space demonstrating debris removal with our ELSA-d mission. Our ELSA-M service will be capable of removing multiple failed satellites in a single mission. This capability, combined with our expert partners TAS and MDA, will enable Astroscale to support the UK government’s ambitious strategic goals to: rapidly accelerate space sector growth; drive the UK’s in-orbit servicing sector; and secure a sustainable space environment for future generations."

ClearSpace - subject to final agreement

ClearSpace UK team, will study the feasibility of the first mission dedicated to removing decommissioned satellites as well as a sizable piece of debris that has been in orbit for many years. ClearSpace is focusing on developing the core technologies, including target sensors, navigation, and capture robotics, among other elements, while bringing together partners, including Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Deimos Space UK and Satellite Applications Catapult, to execute the overall mission.

Rory Holmes, UK Lead, ClearSpace, said, "With this initiative, the UK Space Agency is enabling UK companies to obtain the first-mover advantage in this vitally important field. ClearSpace is excited to work with industry-leading UK space companies to develop the technologies and missions needed to remove debris from orbit, making today’s missions safer and preserving the space environment for future generations."

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is a UN body based in Vienna, Austria. Amongst its’ roles, it maintains the UN Registry of Objects launched in Outer Space and works to ensure the sustainability of outer activities, fostering international solutions to problems such as the rapid increase in space debris to preserve space for future generations.

It also serves as the Secretariat for the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). As part of this project UNOOSA will consult with a range of nations to understand how to support the implementation of the long-term sustainability guidelines that were established through COPUOS. This project builds upon a previous phase of UK funding to UNOOSA, the outputs of which can be found here

Numerica

As a leader in space domain awareness, Numerica operates a global telescope network of over twenty sites to help protect government and commercial satellites from on-orbit hazards and threats. In addition to providing real-time data products for decision support, Numerica also builds customized telescopes and sensor systems so organizations can track objects in low earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO).

High-quality observations produced by the Numerica Telescope Network (NTN) on behalf of the UK Space Agency will enable enhanced space domain awareness of UK-licensed satellites in deep-space including GEO, medium earth orbits (MEO) and highly elliptical orbits (HEO). This data will allow the UK Space Agency to better estimate the position, velocity, and trajectory of satellites to mitigate the risk of collision with other space objects.

Jeff Aristoff, Vice President of space systems at Numerica said, "Numerica is thrilled to support the UK Space Agency with their mission of space sustainability through the use of innovative satellite tracking capabilities. We developed the Numerica Telescope Network for operations just like this to help prevent collisions in space and to keep watch over this increasingly important domain."

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