A project aimed at developing capability to tackle the growing space debris problem will capture multiple defunct satellites in one mission.
The Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture (Cosmic) project from Japanese multinational Astroscale is one of two space junk removal projects to receive funding from the government today (26 October), alongside Swiss firm ClearSpace.
Orbital congestion is one of the biggest challenges facing the space sector, with an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris – including old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts – orbiting Earth, threatening future launches. Projects aimed at tackling the issue could remove satellites and debris by burning them up in the atmosphere.
The UK subsidiary of Astroscale, based in Harwell, Oxfordshire, will explore the development of technology to remove multiple retired satellites in a single mission. The project will build on other Astroscale missions such as Elsa-M and Elsa-d, which has already demonstrated its magnetic capture system in orbit.
“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,” said managing director John Auburn.
“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.”
The ClearSpace UK team will study the feasibility of the first mission dedicated to removing decommissioned satellites as well as a ‘sizeable’ piece of debris that has been in orbit for many years. The company will focus on developing technology including target sensors, navigation, and capture robotics, while bringing together partners including Surrey Satellite Technology, Deimos Space UK and the Satellite Applications Catapult to execute the overall mission.
“With this initiative, the UK Space Agency is enabling UK companies to obtain the first-mover advantage in this vitally important field,” said UK leader Rory Holmes. “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.”
The UK is the leading contributor to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Safety programme, which 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 Agency will also partner with US 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 to help keep UK satellites safely operating. Further action is being taken to improve the UK’s SST services, which can predict hazards in orbit and alert satellite operators to potential collisions in space.
Science minister George Freeman said: “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.”
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