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UK working with global partners to clear up dangerous space debris

27 October 2021

The UK Space Agency is announcing a range of different initiatives aimed at supporting safe and sustainable space operations.

(Artist's rendering of orbital debris. Credit: ESA)
(Artist's rendering of orbital debris. Credit: ESA)

Orbital congestion and space debris remains one of the biggest global challenges facing the space sector. There are currently an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris including old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts orbiting Earth. Space debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and present a real danger to the rapidly increasing number of new satellites being launched each year.

The projects being announced, during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, are:

• A collaboration between the UK Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to support the next stage of international efforts to promote space sustainability. UK Space Agency funding will support a collaborative effort to advance global awareness on space sustainability and how best to implement the UN Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTS Guidelines). 
• Two space firms, Astroscale and ClearSpace, have been awarded UK Space Agency funding to research a UK led mission to remove junk from space, supporting the government’s ambitions to be a leading nation in tackling space debris.
• The UK Space Agency will also partner with US-based company Numerica Corporation, which will provide high-quality space surveillance and tracking (SST) data from a worldwide network of optical telescopes and state-of-the-art software solutions to help keep UK satellites safely operating.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “Growing reliance on satellites for a range of everyday utilities from SatNav to meteorology is making the space tech sector increasingly valuable to the UK economy. Our National Space Strategy sets out our vision for a thriving UK space sector that pushes the boundaries of innovation including a specific commitment to lead in clearing space debris.

“These new projects will support our leading role in cleaning up our orbit, which has been neglected for far too long, and will help keep satellites operating safely so they can continue to provide vital services such as communications and climate change monitoring.”

Further action is being taken to improve the UK’s SST services that can predict hazards in orbit and alert satellite operators to potential collisions in space. This builds on existing work with the Ministry of Defence to bring together data and analysis for civil, military and commercial space users, as set out in the National Space Strategy.

These are just the latest developments the UK Space Agency is making in cleaning up space. In 2020 it awarded seven UK companies a share of over £1 million to help track debris in space. 

In January 2021, the UK Space Agency and UNOOSA signed an initial agreement to support international efforts to promote space sustainability through a series of events and engagement activities. Today’s announcement continues this partnership. 

Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of UNOOSA, said: “The democratisation and intensification we see in the space sector represent encouraging news for the future. The sustainability challenges this new era creates must be addressed as a priority to ensure that the space sector can thrive. We must look at every action we take in space through the lens of sustainability, for which the LTS Guidelines provide an outstanding framework. 

“This project, generously funded by our UK partners, will continue to share information and examples of the practical implementation of the LTS Guidelines. By amplifying existing expertise of member States and international actors, it supports the promotion of actionable solutions.”

The UK is also the leading contributor to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Safety programme, which provides collaboration and funding opportunities for UK scientists and industry. The programme recently awarded funding to Astroscale to develop the technology to remove a OneWeb communications satellite and to ClearSpace to implement the first-ever space mission dedicated to removing an existing object in orbit.

The UK space sector is a huge economic success story employing over 45,000 people in highly skilled jobs – from space scientists and researchers to engineers and satellite manufacturers. Government plans to strengthen the UK as a world-class space nation were set out last month in the National Space Strategy which outlines long-term plans to grow the UK space sector and consolidate the UK’s role as a science and technology superpower.

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