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.
These objects are thought to pose an increasingly a significant threat to the satellite systems which provide many of our vital services.
And with only a fraction of this debris trackable with existing technology an improved ability to monitor potentially hazardous space junk is viewed as critical to the continued development and deployment of satellites
One of the projects to benefit from the latest investment is led by UK space start-up Lift Me Off, which is focussed on the development of machine learning algorithms to distinguish between satellites and space debris. The technology will be able to distinguish between satellites operating nominally and anomalously together with understanding the composition of space debris on-orbit. A prototype test bed with representative sensors, electronics and algorithms will be built to experimentally develop the concept and techniques which can be later scaled up to an end-to-end autonomous algorithm for detection of anomalous behaviour that can, similarly to air traffic control, raise warnings based on live information.
In separate initiatives, Fujitsu is looking at combining machine learning and quantum inspired processing to improve mission planning to remove debris, whilst D-Orbit UK is using a sensor on its recently launched satellite platform to capture images of space objects and couple this with Passive Bistatic radar techniques developed by Strathclyde University.
Two other companies, Deimos and Northern Space and Security, are developing new optical sensors to track space objects from the UK. Andor, based in Northern Ireland, is developing an astronomy camera for tracking and mapping ever smaller sized debris. Finally, new satellite laser ranging technologies will be researched by Lumi Space to precisely track smaller space objects.
Commenting on the latest announcement 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.”
The funding coincides with the signing of a partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defence and UK Space Agency to work together on space domain awareness. 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.