The United Kingdom is investing £5 million to fund a space junk removal mission. The project’s goal is to return two defunct satellites through Earth’s atmosphere later this decade, a first-of-its-kind feat.
The UK’s science minister, George Freeman, spoke today at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability in London, outlining the country’s commitment to keeping Earth’s orbit clean and tidy as part of the UK’s Plan for Space Sustainability. This includes developing regulatory standards for satellite safety and lowering insurance costs for long-term missions.
“We’re on the verge of a massive satellite explosion,” said Freeman. “We want to ensure that we are at the forefront of sustainability science.”
The United Kingdom’s Active Debris Removal mission, first announced last year, will send a spacecraft into orbit in 2026. Once there, it will travel to two dead British satellites orbiting our planet and pull them back into the atmosphere, where they will burn up, demonstrating that a single spacecraft can remove more than one piece of debris.
“Removing multiple pieces of debris with a single-vehicle is the best option,” says Hugh Lewis of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. Today, over 30,000 pieces of debris in Earth’s orbit are being tracked, including approximately 2500 dead satellites.
Current debris removal plans, such as a 2025 mission funded by the European Space Agency by Swiss company Clearspace, are focused on removing only one piece of debris. The UK mission will be the first to target multiple pieces, with the removal spacecraft designed to remain in Earth orbit and possibly be refueled in the future to tackle more junk.
Three companies are competing for the contract: Clearspace, the Japanese-UK company Astroscale, and Surrey Satellite Technology, based in the United Kingdom (SSTL). Two firms will be chosen in July to share the £5 million fund, and a single firm will be chosen for the mission by the end of 2023, with a contract worth up to £60 million.
“Space debris is a huge problem,” Freeman said. “The goal is for the United Kingdom to be a world leader in satellite retrieval systems.”
Each company has a unique method for carrying out the mission. Astroscale plans to use a robotic arm to grab each dead satellite, Clearspace plans to use four arms to “hug” the objects and pull them down, and SSTL is looking into using a giant net to grab one an arm to pull the other down.
The two defunct UK satellites chosen from more than a dozen candidates have yet to be determined. While there are no significant legal obstacles to a country targeting its own satellites, some mission issues must be cleared with the Civil Aviation Authority in the United Kingdom, according to Joanne Wheeler, a lawyer at London-based firm Alden Legal. “What if you go up there and attach to the wrong object?” she wonders, implying that it could be a national security issue.
The scheme, which has the largest fund for a single UK space mission, is intended to spur more commercial debris-removal missions. “We’re trying to accelerate the development of these technologies,” says UK Space Agency’s Jacob Geer. “We’re sending a single satellite to remove two objects.” There is a net decrease in the number of objects in space. It is a significant step for everyone, not just the United Kingdom.”
Source: New Scientist