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UK spends £1m on projects to tackle escalating space junk problem

Image credit: Dreamstime

The UK is allocating £1m to seven firms developing projects to tackle space junk orbiting the Earth.

The UK Space Agency said the money will help develop new sensor technology and artificial intelligence to monitor hazardous space debris.

Projections suggest that with space junk accumulating at an ever-increasing pace, satellite launches could become untenable within the next thousand years due to the exponential rise in the chance that they will collide with other objects.

Estimates of the amount of space debris in orbit vary, from around 900,000 pieces of space junk larger than 1cm to over 160 million orbital objects in total. Only a fraction of this debris can currently be tracked and avoided by working satellites.

The government believes the UK has a significant opportunity to benefit from the new age of satellite megaconstellations - vast networks made up of hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft - so tracking this debris is more important than ever.

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “People probably do not realise just how cluttered space is. You would never let a car drive down a motorway full of broken glass and wreckages and yet this is what satellites and the space station have to navigate every day in their orbital lanes.

“In this new age of space megaconstellations, the UK has an unmissable opportunity to lead the way in monitoring and tackling this space junk. This funding will help us grasp this opportunity and in doing so create sought-after expertise and new high-skill jobs across the country.”

The projects that have been backed include 'Lift Me Off', which will develop and test machine-learning algorithms to distinguish between satellites and space debris, and Fujitsu, who are combining machine learning and quantum-inspired processing to improve mission planning to remove debris.

Two companies, Deimos and Northern Space and Security, will develop new optical sensors to track space objects from the UK, whilst Andor, based in Northern Ireland, will enhance their astronomy camera to track and map ever smaller-sized debris.

Meanwhile, D-Orbit UK will use a space-based sensor to capture images of the debris, while new satellite laser-ranging technologies will be researched by Lumi Space to precisely track smaller objects.

Alok Sharma, business secretary, said: “Millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth present a significant threat to UK satellite systems which provide the vital services that we all take for granted – from mobile communications to weather forecasting.

“By developing new AI and sensor technology, the seven pioneering space projects we are backing today will significantly strengthen the UK’s capabilities to monitor these hazardous space objects, helping to create new jobs and protect the services we rely on in our everyday lives.”

In May, economists based at the University of Colorado-Boulder suggested that the most effective way to solve the issue of building space debris in orbit around Earth is to charge operators a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

The world’s space agencies are already looking at a variety of ways to clean up the mess. Last year, a 1,000-year simulation suggested that space debris will become ‘uncontrollable’, while the European Space Agency has previously proposed a new mission to tackle the dead orbiting satellites which pose a “very big danger” to the Earth.

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