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Clearspace-1 concept art

Space junk-grabbing satellite’s control system to be built in UK

Image credit: ClearSpace/ESA

The attitude and orbit control system of an ESA satellite dubbed 'the Claw' that will remove debris from space will be designed and constructed in Britain.

The OECD estimates that there are now more than 160 million objects in object, mostly space debris that varies from defunct satellites to flecks of paint. Due to the very high speed of objects in orbit, even small pieces of debris can cause serious damage to satellites, compromising vital everyday services such as GPS.

Last year, an Earth-observation spacecraft operated by the ESA had to use its thrusters to dodge a Starlink satellite; although a clash would not have been inevitable, ESA concluded that the trajectories posed enough of a threat to make the manoeuvre necessary.

ClearSpace-1, due to launch in 2025, will be the first mission to remove space debris from orbit, in a step towards establishing a market for in-orbit servicing and debris removal. The satellite, nicknamed ‘the Claw’, will use a pincer mechanism to grab debris, before giving it a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere, allowing it to burn up safely.

Elecnor Deimos, which is headquartered in Spain, will play a leading role in Clearspace-1. Its UK arm will design the attitude and orbit control system (AOCS) that will orientate and position the satellite in order to grasp space debris, using thrusters, antennas, and power generators.

“For 14 billion years – between the Big Bang and the autumn of 1957 – space was pristine. But since that autumn we have placed nearly 10,000 satellites into the sky, the vast majority of which are now defunct or destroyed,” said UK Space Agency CEO Dr Graham Turnock. “The UK is going to lead the way in tracking and removing this hazardous debris, and I am delighted that technology supporting this pioneering ambition is going to be made in Britain.

After the ESA approved the mission concept in 2019, Swiss start-up ClearSpace began to coordinate the mission, bringing together a consortium of experts including Elecnor Deimos.

The AOCS module will be integrated into the overall guidance, navigation, and control system being developed by Elecnor Deimos of Portugal, along with other German and Portuguese organisations.

Ismael López, CEO of Elecnor Deimos, commented: “This is a very innovative mission and we are thrilled that the expertise and capacity across our companies match the technology challenges required.”

Earlier this year, the UK Space Agency announced several new investments to support the monitoring of space debris. Projects backed included Lift Me Off, which will develop machine learning algorithms to distinguish between satellites and space debris using thermal infrared and optical cameras, and Andor, which will support astronomers in tracking debris which may disrupt ground-based observations.

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