Space, an integral part of our daily lives, faces a rising challenge that threatens the reliability of essential services. The specter of space debris looms large, with the potential to disrupt everything from television broadcasts to weather forecasts and online banking.
The UK government is taking proactive measures to address this issue, investing in national capabilities and international cooperation to safeguard our vital satellite infrastructure.
The Scale of the Debris Challenge
The Hidden Danger in Orbit
Statistical models paint a sobering picture, estimating approximately one million fragments of space debris ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm in size. Shockingly, there are 130 million more minuscule pieces, measuring between 1 mm and 1 cm, orbiting Earth.
Among these, a mere 36,500 objects larger than 10 cm are actively tracked, with 31,010 cataloged. Among these relics are old satellites, discarded rocket components, and remnants of past collisions.
Risk to Active Satellites
Protecting Earth’s Vital Services
Active satellites, the cornerstone of essential services on Earth, are in constant peril, facing the potential for collisions with both other satellites and the formidable volume of human-made space debris. In response to this challenge, the UK government has adopted a multifaceted approach.
This comprehensive approach encompasses regulation, sustainability standards development, technological innovations, and debris removal missions. Moreover, it includes robust surveillance and tracking services that provide timely warnings for satellites in imminent danger, as well as alerts for potential debris impacts on UK territory.
UK Commitment to Tackling Space Debris
A Pledge to Secure Space Sustainability
In alignment with the National Space Strategy, the UK is intensifying its efforts towards space sustainability. Notably, two Active Debris Removal Phase B mission studies were awarded to Astroscale and ClearSpace in September 2022, totaling £4 million.
These studies will not only provide valuable insights but also guide the UK Space Agency in selecting a mission concept. This concept will ultimately culminate in a demonstration of the nation’s capability to rendezvous, dock with, and deorbit two defunct UK satellites by 2026.
Astroscale: Securing Space Sustainability
Pioneering the Fight Against Debris
A decade ago, Astroscale’s CEO and Founder, Nobu Okada, made a commitment to resolve the space debris crisis by the end of 2020. Today, over 500 individuals, including engineers, mission operators, project managers, and support staff, have joined Nobu’s quest across the UK, France, Israel, the USA, and Japan.
Astroscale is at the forefront of in-orbit servicing, offering innovative solutions ranging from satellite management to large debris removal, refueling, and recycling. Astroscale is pioneering a safer space environment for future generations.
The UK Space Agency is providing funding to Astroscale for further development of technology to remove inactive satellites from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture (COSMIC) will leverage Astroscale’s Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) and robotic debris capture capabilities to eliminate two defunct UK satellites orbiting Earth by 2026.
ClearSpace: Revolutionizing Space Missions
Forging a Sustainable Space Frontier
Established in 2018, ClearSpace is on a mission to revolutionize space missions. Moreover, with dynamic engineering teams spread across offices in Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United States, ClearSpace is developing technologies spanning in-orbit servicing applications. These applications encompass disposal, transport, inspection, assembly, manufacturing, repair, and recycling.
Furthermore, ClearSpace aims to usher in a new era of sustainable space operations and foster a circular space economy.
In addition, the UK Space Agency has chosen ClearSpace to develop an Active Debris Removal mission capable of eliminating multiple hazardous objects from space. The mission, known as the Clearing of the LEO Environment with Active Removal (CLEAR), will advance key technology building blocks and catalyze commercially viable disposal services.
What Else Are We Doing About Space Sustainability?
A Holistic Approach to Space Preservation
The UK’s approach to space sustainability extends beyond debris removal and in-orbit servicing. The country is a significant investor in the ClearSpace-1 mission through the European Space Agency, aimed at removing a debris fragment from orbit in 2026. Additionally, the UK is leading a European Space Agency space weather monitoring mission, Vigil.
Space Surveillance and Tracking
Safeguarding Satellites through Vigilance
The UK Space Agency collaborates closely with the Ministry of Defence to develop a national space observation and monitoring capability. Ground-based sensor data helps protect satellites from collisions, secure critical national infrastructure, and support the thriving satellite industry.
The UK Space Operations Centre provides observation and monitoring information to government users, launching a Space Surveillance and tracking service for UK-licensed satellite operators under the “Monitor your Satellites” project. This service, currently in public beta, monitors over 90% of satellites with active licenses in the UK, offering collision warnings when necessary.
Regulation and Standards
Shaping a Responsible Space Environment
Safe, secure, and sustainable space practices require a set of agreed-upon rules, regulations, and guidance. These measures aim to maximize access to space while minimizing environmental burden, similar to practices in terrestrial domains like maritime, land, and air.
The UK recently initiated a Consultation on Orbital Liabilities, Insurance, Charging, and Space Sustainability. This comprehensive effort addresses liability, insurance, and charging policies, promoting the adoption of sustainable practices.
The consultation also explores long-term sustainability planning and the development of sustainability principles through the Earth∞Space Sustainability Initiative.
A Unified Approach to a Global Frontier
Space knows no borders, emphasizing the need for effective national and international collaboration to ensure coherence and alignment. The primary multilateral forum for international engagement is the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, where the UK plays a strong role in driving forward key space and sustainability issues.
The UK also funds initiatives through the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs to promote understanding and adoption of the Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines, contributing to broader capacity building in space regulation.
In this new era of space exploration, the UK stands as a beacon of innovation and progress in space sustainability. These bold and pioneering efforts hold the promise of creating a cleaner and more secure space environment for future generations.
As humanity embarks on its journey deeper into the cosmos, it is crucial to embrace this opportunity for responsible space stewardship. Doing so ensures a lasting legacy of benefits for generations to come.