“Clear up after yourselves” UK to fund Oxfordshire-based Astroscale research into dangerous space debris

AstraScale Space Debris

Harwell-based Astroscale has been awarded UK Space Agency funding to research a UK-led mission to remove junk from space, supporting the government’s ambitions to be a leading nation in tackling space debris.

Orbital congestion and space debris remains one of the biggest global challenges facing the space sector. There are currently an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris including old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts orbiting Earth.

Space debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and present a real danger to the rapidly increasing number of new satellites being launched each year.

In this feasibility study Astroscale, based in Harwell and specialising in satellite servicing and orbital sustainability across all orbits, will explore the development of technology to remove multiple retired satellites in a single mission.

This new national project could build on other Astroscale missions such as ELSA-M and ELSA-d, with ELSA-d already in orbit and comprising a spacecraft servicer demonstrating debris capture technology of a test satellite. The Astroscale team will work alongside partners including TAS and MDA to complement their extensive systems engineering, guidance, navigation and control (GNC), Mission Operations and Ground Segment expertise.

John Auburn, Managing Director, Astroscale Ltd, said: “The UK government is taking an important leadership role to plan the very first UK Active Debris removal mission to capture two defunct satellites in space. Astroscale’s technology is currently in space demonstrating debris removal with our ELSA-d mission.

“Our ELSA-M service will be capable of removing multiple failed satellites in a single mission. This capability, combined with our expert partners TAS and MDA, will enable Astroscale to support the UK government’s ambitious strategic goals to: rapidly accelerate space sector growth; drive the UK’s in-orbit servicing sector; and secure a sustainable space environment for future generations.”

Science Minister George Freeman said: “Growing reliance on satellites for a range of everyday utilities from SatNav to meteorology is making the space tech sector increasingly valuable to the UK economy.

“These new projects will support our leading role in cleaning up our orbit, which has been neglected for far too long, and will help keep satellites operating safely so they can continue to provide vital services such as communications and climate change monitoring.”

These are just the latest developments the UK Space Agency is making in cleaning up space. In 2020 it awarded seven UK companies a share of more than £1 million to help track debris in space.

The UK is also the leading contributor to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Safety programme, which provides collaboration and funding opportunities for UK scientists and industry. The programme recently awarded funding to Astroscale to develop the technology to remove a OneWeb communications satellite and to ClearSpace to implement the first-ever space mission dedicated to removing an existing object in orbit.

The UK space sector is a huge economic success story employing more than 45,000 people in highly skilled jobs – from space scientists and researchers to engineers and satellite manufacturers. Government plans to strengthen the UK as a world-class space nation were set out last month in the National Space Strategy which outlines long-term plans to grow the UK space sector and consolidate the UK’s role as a science and technology superpower.