Seven UK companies have been awarded a share of over £1 million to help track debris in space by the government.
There are approximately 160 million objects currently in orbit – mainly debris – which could collide with satellites which provide vital services for every day use. The seven pioneering projects which will develop new sensor technology or artificial intelligence to monitor hazardous space debris were announced by the UK Space Agency.
The funding coincides with the signing of a formal partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defence and UK Space Agency to work together on space domain awareness and monitor threats and hazards in orbit. 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.
The agreement will build 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.
Only a fraction of debris can be tracked
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.
The investments will 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.
“Significant threat to UK satellite systems”
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.”
Funding for the projects follows a close call in which a £100 million spacecraft operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) had to light up its thrusters to dodge a satellite. A clash between the spacecraft was far from certain, but the trajectories posed enough of a threat that ESA concluded that they need to manoeuvre the spacecraft out of harm’s way.
“A motorway full of broken glass and wreckages”
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.”
Algorithms, sensors and laser ranging technologies
Projects backed by the project include Lift Me Off which 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 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.
Lumi Space will also receive a share of the funding to research new satellite laser ranging technologies to precisely track smaller space objects.
The UK is a world-leader in small satellite technology, telecommunications, robotics and Earth observation, with universities hosting 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.