Britain’s first space garbage truck can clean up rubbish with a bear hug – and even the robotic equivalent of a rubbish picker.
The two technologies have been proposed by companies competing for UK contracts to launch cleanup missions as early as 2026.
The winning prototype will track and capture two defunct satellites, then throw them into the atmosphere, where they will burn up.
There are growing concerns about the amount of debris orbiting the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour. Collisions with critical satellites could disrupt everyday services, including telecommunications and GPS navigation.
Rory Holmes of ClearSpace, one of the competing companies, told Sky News: “We’ve been launching satellites into space for the last six years without really thinking about what happens to them at the end of their lives.
“When they run out of fuel or get damaged, we just throw them away. We let them clog the space.
“We’re in a very crowded situation in space right now, with all these different dead objects whizzing by, criss-crossing each other’s paths, colliding sometimes, and sometimes really getting in the way of what we want to do in space . “
ClearSpace is designing a spacecraft that looks a bit like a giant squid, with multiple arms reaching out to orbit a target satellite.
Requires sophisticated robotics
Mr Holmes called it a “bear hug”.
“We had to find a way to capture and enclose these objects so they don’t spin away from us,” he said.
“One of the advantages of the mechanism we have is that we can go completely around the object before pulling it in tightly to make sure it doesn’t slip off or go off in a direction we didn’t expect.”
Another company, Astroscale, based in Oxfordshire, will use a spacecraft with a long robotic arm to grab the defunct satellite.
Designing spacecraft that can assess and capture aging satellites is a huge challenge, said Jason Forshaw, head of the company’s future business.
“Maybe different parts have fallen off the satellite,” he said.
“Sometimes the antenna falls off, sometimes it gets hit by debris.
“So the first challenge is to inspect the debris when you get there to see what state it is in.
“Then the second stage is actually getting closer to it and locking on, and the robotics required to do that are very sophisticated.”
increased risk of collision
The spacecraft will have to work autonomously. When dealing with such fast-moving satellites, radio signals from ground control arrived too late.
Astroscale wants satellite makers to start adding a standardized docking plate to their designs so that other spacecraft can more easily lock onto it, either refuel and service it, or remove it from orbit.
Three Tons of Space Junk Headed to the Moon
ISS forced to dodge debris
According to the UK Space Agency, there are more than 130 million pieces of space debris surrounding Earth, ranging from tiny flecks of paint to old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts.
Active satellites and the International Space Station must periodically change orbits to avoid dangerous debris.
But only larger debris can be tracked, and as low-Earth orbit becomes more crowded, the risk of collisions increases.
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Pressure on business to take responsibility for space junk
Simulations suggest that removing large objects before they collide and create clouds of smaller debris would reduce the risk of a series of runaway impacts destroying multiple satellites.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has awarded £4 million to the two companies to design the cleanup mission.
The agency’s Adam Camilletti said: “We are looking for defunct UK-registered satellites.
“Those are our satellites. We want to lead the way in being responsible players in space and taking that junk down so it doesn’t threaten anything else.”
The UK aerospace industry already supports 47,000 jobs and generates £16.5 billion in revenue each year. But as pressure mounts on countries and companies to take responsibility for their space junk, new opportunities for growth have emerged.
Adam said: “Having taken the lead, not only in developing proactive debris removal, but also in understanding the laws and guidelines that must be followed, really shows that the UK is taking its commitment seriously.”
“It puts us in a strong position for future business. If we’re the first to prove it, then we’ll be the place of choice for these contracts.”