In order to improve its national space surveillance and tracking (SST) capability the UK Space Agency has launched a grant of £1 million to fund low cost approaches that will help monitor space junk with AI, or develop creative solutions to clear it from low orbit.
NASA estimates that currently there are more than 23,000 bits of debris larger than 10 centimetres in orbit, while a further 500,000 (ESA estimates this number to be 900,000) bits of debris between 1 and 10 centimetres in diameter are thought to be spinning in orbit.
Only a tiny proportion of this debris is tracked.
A major concern is that if two objects collide in low orbit they would do so at 17,000 mph, in an impact that would spread wreckage into the path of satellites or the International Space Station, causing an extensive debris field that would severely disrupt satellite communication networks and our ability to conduct further space endeavours.
With the new funding organisations can receive a maximum grant of £250,000 (out of a pot of just £1 million) to develop novel solutions that can help clear space debris in an effective low cost manner.
However, the grant is not solely limited to the clearance of space junk: organisations can also bid for funding to develop AI models that help optimise existing orbital data which would help mitigate collision risks.
The grant is designed to increase the UK’s foothold in the space market. As the UK Space Agency states: “SST is a growing market with the current forecast potentially expected to reach over £100 million by 2035. With the demand for SST increasing, this provides an opportunity for the UK space industry to take a leading role in the sector.”
Dr Alice Bunn international director of the UK Space Agency commented that: “We want the UK to be at the forefront of a new era of space where we continue to push boundaries while ensuring the growth is sustainable for all. Space debris is a global problem and this funding will enable UK companies to develop new methods to help tackle the issue. Growing our space surveillance and tracking capabilities will be crucial for UK space businesses to innovate.”
The scheme started today with a July 10, 2020 deadline for submissions.
Low Orbit Filling With Space Junk
Low orbit satellites operate within an altitude of 1,200 miles or less. In recent years it has gotten significantly cheaper to launch and maintain small communication or science based satellites within this orbit. A multitude of firms and countries are launching constellations into low orbit resulting in a congested pathways.
Last year for the ’first time ever’ the European Space Agency had to take quick action in order to stop one of its satellites being taken out by a SpaceX Starlink satellite.
— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) September 2, 2019
SpaceX’s internet connectivity delivery satellite constellation Starlink currently has 120 low-orbit satellites in place, with SpaceX planning to launch thousands more in the coming years. The firm’s Starlink constellation has already come under fire from astronomers around the world as it is clearly visible even at this nascent stage of its deployment.