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Two UK-based companies are designing missions to clear hazardous space junk alongside the launch of a new programme to back cutting-edge space technology, the UK Space Agency has announced.
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 projects will directly support the creation of 70 new jobs, with further opportunities to increase growth in the wider UK space sector, which already supports 47,000 jobs and generates an income of £16.5 billion each year.
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 for funding from ETP opened today and will include technology for in-orbit servicing and manufacturing, which can extend the lifetime of satellites, building resilience and reducing space debris. Future calls will focus on emerging technologies to support the UK’s contribution to future space science missions.
Orbital congestion and space debris is one of the biggest challenges facing the global space sector and the UK Space Agency has committed £102 million, over the next three years, to deliver capabilities to track objects in space and reduce debris. The UK is also leading on global regulation and standard setting to make space activities more sustainable, in line with the government’s National Space Strategy.
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 and the public services that they deliver, from communications and navigation to environmental monitoring.
Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: "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. 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. By catalysing investment, backing innovative new technologies and supporting a national mission to remove space debris, we can keep space open for future generations and protect the important satellite services that modern life depends on."
ClearSpace UK, based in London, and Astroscale Ltd., based at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, were chosen after completing feasibility studies of the missions to remove derelict objects from space earlier this year.
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 and will finish with the preliminary design review — an evaluation of the progress on the design and the technical adequacy of the proposed mission.
The Clearing the LEO Environment with Active Removal (CLEAR) mission, which will advance key technology building blocks, is a catalyst for the development of commercially viable disposal services and other in-orbit services.