OneWeb and Astroscale hope to safeguard the satellite economy with ground-breaking new spacecraft technology, thanks to a new investment of €14.8 million (£12.6 million). The mission to demonstrate Astroscale’s ELSA-M servicer will launch towards the end of 2024, with ambitious plans to deliver a debris removal service to satellite operators thereafter.

The announcement builds upon Sunrise, a partnership launched in 2019 between the European Space Agency (ESA) and OneWeb to support the advancement of next generation technologies ranging from artificial intelligence for flying the satellites to new payload and user terminal technology to supporting research in active debris removal.

Capturing and removing multiple satellites in a single mission

The latest funding agreement will be in support of Astroscale and their UK partners, and will complete the design of the ELSA-M servicer, progressing through manufacturing up to the satellite pre-integration phase. Once complete, the servicer will be capable of capturing and removing multiple satellites in a single mission, once they reach the end of their operational life in low Earth orbit.

Satellites provide society with vital services including weather forecasting, disaster management, GPS, data for banking systems and broadband. But if the orbital environment becomes too congested, connectivity is at risk.

Massimiliano Ladovaz, Chief Technology Officer at OneWeb, said: “Responsible space is central to our mission at OneWeb and we are committed to sustainable practices in all the environments in which we operate. The development of the ELSA-M servicer prototype is another significant milestone towards a responsible approach to space, ensuring that our satellites can be deorbited and that the low Earth orbit environment is protected as a natural and shared resource.”

‘Telecommunications services at risk unless we clean up space’

John Auburn, Managing Director at Astroscale, added: “We’re putting our telecommunications services at risk unless we start cleaning up space. Astroscale’s ELSA-M servicer is designed to build on our ELSA-d demonstration mission to clean up orbital debris. This spacecraft will demonstrate our innovative rendezvous, capture and de-orbit capabilities with a full-size constellation client.

“We plan to launch our commercial service for satellite operators, such as OneWeb and others, soon after the in-orbit demonstration, with a vision to make debris removal part of routine operations by 2030. We are very grateful to the UK and European Space Agencies for their continued support to develop this innovative technology, leading to our commercial services that will contribute to a sustainable economy in space.”

Innovation in space industry

Elodie Viau, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at ESA, said: “It is vital to ensure the responsible use of space to protect today’s interconnected world, because our digital economy and society rely on the ability to communicate. I am proud of ESA’s track record in fostering innovation in the space industry in Europe, bringing to fruition new ways of ensuring the sustainable use of space, and of the role that ESA’s Partnership Projects play as a trusted partner for investors, operators and industry.”

The UK’s Science Minister, George Freeman, said: “With thousands of satellites already in orbit and thousands more being launched every year, addressing the issue of space debris and finding new ways to remove defunct spacecraft and other types of space junk is of ever-increasing importance – to both reduce the cost of debris damage for satellite operators and ensure space is safe and sustainable.

“That’s why, the UK government has made space sustainability a key theme of our National Space Strategy and it is fantastic to see leading roles for UK companies Astroscale and OneWeb in this European Space Agency project, helping us continue to show UK technology leadership in this important area.”

UK taking action

Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Space debris threatens the satellites we depend on every day for vital services, such as navigation, banking and communications.

“That’s why the UK is taking action, by funding new commercial technologies to remove debris from space and working with international partners to lead efforts to promote sustainability. This latest phase of the Sunrise programme partnership between the European Space Agency, Astroscale Ltd. and OneWeb will develop an innovative spacecraft Servicer to remove multiple defunct satellites, putting the UK at the forefront of efforts to clear up space.”

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