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Space agency announces £1m fund for ideas to tackle space debris

Professional Engineering

An artist's impression of space debris in orbit around the Earth (Credit: Shutterstock/ NASA)
An artist's impression of space debris in orbit around the Earth (Credit: Shutterstock/ NASA)

The government has announced a new £1m fund for projects to tackle the growing problem of hazardous space debris.

The UK Space Agency will give organisations grants of up to £250,000 to come up with ‘smart’ solutions to the problem, by using cost-effective ways to monitor objects in low Earth orbit or applying artificial intelligence (AI) to make better use of existing orbital data.

There are an estimated 900,000 pieces of space debris larger than 1cm orbiting the Earth, with only a small proportion of them tracked. The pieces, left over from old satellites and rocket launches, could seriously damage new equipment put into orbit. One collision could create thousands of small, fast-moving fragments which could damage the satellites that provide everyday services such as communications, weather forecasting or satellite navigation.

Tracking debris allows satellite operators to predict possible collisions so they can manoeuvre them out of harm’s way.

“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,” said science minister Amanda Solloway.

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

“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 of the 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. Space surveillance and tracking is a growing international market, forecast to potentially reach over £100m by 2035. The government hopes the UK space industry could take a leading role in the sector.


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