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UK Space Agency gives £3.5m boost to in-orbit satellite repair and refuelling

Professional Engineering

The Satellite Applications Catapult’s In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) work yard (Credit: Airbus Defence and Space)
The Satellite Applications Catapult’s In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) work yard (Credit: Airbus Defence and Space)

Satellites approaching their end of life could be repaired or refuelled in orbit thanks to operations being developed and tested at facilities in the UK, which have benefited from almost £3.5m in new funding.

Announced today (9 February), the UK Space Agency funding (UKSA) is aimed at prolonging the life of satellites “to ensure space remains sustainable for future generations”.

Collisions between defunct satellites have contributed to a growing space debris problem. There are now 37,000 objects measuring more than 10cm in orbit, the UKSA said, and an estimated 1m pieces sized 1-10cm. These objects pose a grave threat to the growing number of satellites launched each year.

The new funding includes a £2m upgrade to the Satellite Applications Catapult’s In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) facility at the Westcott Space Cluster in Buckinghamshire. The facility will provide unique capabilities in the UK, the UKSA said, where companies can verify, validate and demonstrate a range of in-orbit operations including manufacturing, servicing, inspection, repair and assembly.

Lucy Edge, chief operating officer at the Satellite Applications Catapult, said: “IOSM is predicted to be worth £11bn globally by 2031, and the UK has the expertise to capture at least 25% of this market. To achieve that, it’s critical that the UK’s IOSM companies have access to infrastructure to test their technologies and operations under mission conditions. Our new upgraded facility offers exceptional IOSM testing capabilities and supports the Catapult’s goals to grow the entire space industry in the UK.

“It will help to meet goals within the National Space Strategy for in-orbit servicing, and help with UK Space Agency-funded work developing space sustainability standards, including exploring the design and operation of sustainable spacecraft.”

The funding will provide access to the large-scale equipment needed to replicate orbital conditions and flight dynamics. This includes dynamic tracking, real-time positioning, a gravity off-load system, and enhancing the orbital simulation environment. The in-orbit simulation robots will benefit from increased digital twin capabilities, which act as a proxy for the space environment and enable testing in the virtual world.

Additionally, almost £1.5m will fund feasibility studies on refuelling satellites in space, to extend their life and reduce the amount of space debris.

Ray Fielding, head of space sustainability at the UKSA, said: “Until recently, satellites have been designed as one-shot items – non-refuellable, with mission lifespans coming to an end when the satellite can no longer manoeuvre effectively.

“This package of funding shows the UK Space Agency is leading work to develop UK capabilities in performing in-orbit tasks, such as refuelling.”

The three contracts for refuelling research are:

  • Astroscale will adapt its existing Cosmic debris-removal spacecraft to a new refuelling servicer product, partnering with TAS, Airbus Defence & Space, Orbit Fab and GMV
  • ClearSpace’s Refuel.Me mission extension will draw on its existing Clear debris removal mission, partnering with Orbit Fab, the Satellite Applications Catapult and
  • Orbit Fab will use its Rapidly Attachable Fuel Transfer Interface (RAFTITM) and the Grappling and Resupply Active Solution for Propellants (Grasp) to develop the RAFTEA mission, partnering with MDA, ClearSpace, D-Orbit, and BryceTech.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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