UK announces £1m funding tackle space debris 

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The UK space agency has announced a £1m funding pot aimed at developing smart solutions to the challenge of monitoring and detecting space debris.

space debris
Representation of known satellites and objects orbiting Earth. Image: ESA

There are an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris larger than 1cm orbiting the Earth, with only a small proportion of them tracked.

Tracking debris allows satellite operators to predict possible collisions so that they can manoeuvre them out of harm’s way. One collision could create thousands of small, fast-moving fragments which can damage the satellites that provide everyday services such as communications, weather forecasting or satellite navigation.

Commenting on the announcement the government’s science minister Amanda Solloway said: “Today’s funding will enable businesses to develop cutting-edge innovations to combat the growing amount of space debris orbiting the Earth – helping protect vital services like communications, weather forecasting and satellite navigation.”

The UK is playing a significant role in the international effort to clean up space debris as the largest investor in space safety for the European Space Agency, including a substantial £10m commitment to the ADRIOS (Active Debris Removal/In orbit servicing) programme. Later this year, Harwell, Oxfordshire, will host the operations centre for the ELSA-d satellite clean-up and decommissioning programme led by Astroscale.

The funding is expected to help advance the UK’s already strong position in space surveillance and tracking, a market that is forecast to be worth over £100m by 2035.

“Space debris is a global problem and this funding will enable UK companies to develop new methods to help tackle the issue,” said Dr Alice Bunn, International Director, UK Space Agency. “Growing our space surveillance and tracking capabilities will be crucial for UK space businesses to innovate safely and sustainably in the future.”

Organisations will be able to bid for a maximum grant award of £250,000, out of a £1m funding pot. The call for applications is open from 26 May 2020 and will close on 10 July 2020.

As previously reported by The Engineer there are also a number of efforts underway looking at methods of removing items of space debris from orbit. In 2018 a European group led by Surrey University's Surrey Space Centre carried out trials of a satellite equipped with a specially developed net, whist other groups have explored technologies ranging from ground-based energy weapons, to giant passive debris sweepers.  ESA’s ClearSpace-1 initiative, planned for launch in 2025, is expected to be the first mission of its kind to remove an item of debris from orbit.