space debris

UK could launch space clean-up mission by 2026

Image credit: Dreamstime

A "garbage truck for space" and a spacecraft with a robotic arm are two of the projects competing for a government contract to capture defunct satellites.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has given two companies £4m to design a space clean-up mission that could launch as soon as 2026. 

The winning prototype will track down and capture two defunct satellites already orbiting Earth, then cast them into the atmosphere where they will burn up. Amongst the proposals are two innovative solutions: Britain's first garbage truck for space, and a spacecraft with a robotic arm. 

"For the last six decades we've been launching satellites into space without really thinking about what happens at the end of their life," Rory Holmes of ClearSpace, one of the competing companies, told Sky News. 

"When they run out of fuel or when they break, we just discard them. We leave them to clog up space.

"We're in a situation now where space is quite congested and all these different dead objects are whizzing around, crisscrossing each other's paths, sometimes colliding, and sometimes really getting in the way of what we want to be doing in space."

At the moment, estimates suggest there are over 100 million pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, ranging in size from a penny to an entire rocket booster, and the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years. 

With contributions from companies such as SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb, as many as 18,000 new satellites could be floating above the planet by 2025. To date, Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone has launched about 3,000 satellites for its space-based internet service, Starlink. 

In order to address this problem, space company ClearSpace is designing a spacecraft that resembles a giant squid, with multiple arms reaching out to wrap around a target satellite, in what Holmes called a "bear hug".

"We have to find a way of capturing and enclosing these objects so they don't spin away from us," he said.

"One advantage with the mechanism we have is that we can completely get around the object before we pull it in tightly to make sure it can't slip away and can't go off in the direction we're not expecting."

The other company, Oxfordshire-based Astroscale, has proposed using a spacecraft with a long robotic arm to grab defunct satellites.

Jason Forshaw, head of future business at the company, said designing a spacecraft that could assess and capture an ageing satellite was a huge challenge.

"Maybe different parts have fallen off the satellite," he said. "Sometimes antennas fall off, sometimes they get hit by debris. The first challenge is inspecting the debris when you get there to see what condition it's in.

"Then the second stage is actually getting closer to it and latching on and there is complexity in the robotics needed to do that."

Astroscale is hoping satellite manufacturers start adding a standardised docking plate to their designs to make it easier for another spacecraft to latch on, either to refuel and service it or to remove it from orbit.

Governments, businesses, academics and advocacy groups have acknowledged the necessity of managing space debris, through measures that range from active space debris removal to policies which disincentivise leaving spacecraft and other objects in low-Earth orbit past their useful lifetimes.

Space debris is an increasing danger, as active satellites and the International Space Station regularly have to change their orbit to avoid collisions. A piece of space debris just 1cm in size could penetrate the walls of an orbiting spacecraft, thanks to the very high velocities of orbiting objects.

In September, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reduce the deadline for the removal of unused satellites in low-Earth orbit from 25 years to five.

Out-of-service satellites must be removed from the Earth’s orbit “as soon as practicable and no more than five years following the end of their mission,” according to the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule.

The UK space industry already supports 47,000 jobs and generates £16.5bn a year. As pressure grows for countries and companies to take responsibility for their space junk, there is new opportunity for growth.

"We're going after defunct UK-registered satellites," said UKSA's Adam Camilletti. "Those are our satellites. We want to lead the way in being a responsible actor in space and bring that junk down so it doesn't threaten anything else.

"Being the first to lead, not only on developing active debris removal, but in understanding the laws and the guidelines you have to follow, that really shows the UK is taking its commitment seriously.

"It puts us in a great position for future business. If we're the first ones to demonstrate it, then we're going to be the go-to place for those contracts."

With a higher amount of spacecraft being sent into space, the likelihood of fallen space junk causing harm to people and other space hardware increases. A recent study published in Nature Astronomy estimated the likelihood of falling rocket and satellite parts getting through the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a one in 10 chance of one or more casualties from space debris occurring over the next 10 years.

In May 2021, the International Space Station (ISS) was hit by a piece of space junk which took a significant chunk out of its 17m-long robotic arm. In November, the ISS was forced to alter its orbit in order to avoid a segment of a now-defunct Chinese satellite that was headed on a collision course.

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