Government backs UK companies tackling dangerous ‘space junk’

  • Currently there are approximately 160 million objects in orbit – mainly debris – which could collide with satellites vital to services we use every day

  • UK Space Agency and Ministry of Defence sign formal agreement to work together on monitoring threats and hazards in orbit

Seven pioneering projects which will develop new sensor technology or artificial intelligence to monitor hazardous space debris, have been announced today by the UK Space Agency.

The UK Space Agency and Ministry of Defence have also announced the next step in their joint initiative to enhance the UK’s awareness of events in space.

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 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 it is more important than ever to effectively track this debris.

Today’s investments will help bolster the UK’s capabilities to track this space junk and monitor the risks of potentially dangerous collisions with satellites or even the crewed International Space Station.

Projects backed today include Lift Me Off who 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.

D-Orbit UK

D-Orbit UK will use a space-based sensor on their recently launched satellite platform to capture images of space objects and couple this with Passive Bistatic radar techniques developed by the University of Strathclyde.

Finally, new satellite laser ranging technologies will be researched by Lumi Space to precisely track smaller space objects.

Last year there was a close call in which a spacecraft operated by the European Space Agency had to light up its thrusters to dodge a Starlink satellite. A clash between the spacecraft was far from certain, but the trajectories posed enough of a threat that ESA concluded that an evasive manoeuvre was necessary.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma 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.

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 funding coincides with the signing of a partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defence and UK Space Agency to work together on space domain awareness. This civil and military collaboration aims to bring together data and analysis from defence, civil and commercial space users to better understand what is happening in orbit to ensure the safety and security of UK licensed satellites.

Building on the UK’s current efforts, which has seen the UK Space Agency and RAF analysts working together since 2016, this agreement will further improve our space domain awareness capabilities.

It could also provide opportunities to work alongside global allies, such as the US, to support our continued work to enhance space sustainability and maintain the UK space industry as a global leader.

The UK is already a world-leader in small satellite technology, telecommunications, robotics and Earth observation, and our universities host some of the best minds in the world for space science. Space surveillance and tracking (SST) is a growing international market which space consultants Euroconsult and London Economics forecast could potentially reach over £100 million.

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