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UK government seeks innovations to tackle space debris

Organisations developing solutions in space surveillance and tracking will be able to bid for a share of a £1m funding pot

The UK Space Agency has announced £1m in funding for a competition to find innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) to combat the growing issue of space debris.

Close to one million pieces of debris larger than 1cm are currently orbiting the Earth, according to the agency, and only a few are tracked. The government now wants to find ways to track these objects, which can be potentially hazardous. Tracking debris could help satellite operators to predict and prevent possible collisions, which could damage satellites that provide services such as communications and weather forecasting.

“From artificial intelligence to advanced tracking systems, the UK space industry is leading the way in developing ground-breaking solutions to worldwide problems,” said science minister Amanda Solloway. “[The funding] will enable businesses to develop cutting-edge innovations to combat the growing amount of space debris orbiting the Earth, helping protect vital services.”

Organisations will be able to bid for up to £250,000 of the funding package. The idea is to identify technologies focused on space surveillance and tracking (SST), which the government considers to be a growing international market, forecast to potentially reach over £100m by 2035.

Proposals should focus on one of the two core themes. The first is low-cost low Earth orbit (LEO) surveillance and tracking sensors. The UK Space Agency is interested in novel technologies, techniques and system design which provides performance similar to, or better than, current systems at reduced cost. According to the agency, space-based systems are within scope, although it anticipates that “it may be difficult to fulfil the low-cost requirement using space-based systems”.

The second theme is artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) to enhance SST data exploitation. These proposals could include improvements to the monitoring of satellite manoeuvres, status and pattern of life, advancements in conjunction assessments, or monitoring of in-orbit servicing missions. The UK Space Agency is also open to proposals equally from AI or ML specialists who have not previously worked in the space sector or space specialists who are interested in considering how to utilise these techniques.

The funding is part of the development of a comprehensive UK space strategy and launch of a National Space Innovation Programme, which will fund technologies and create highly skilled jobs in the sector.

In addition, the UK is engaged in international efforts to clean up space debris as the largest investor in space safety for the European Space Agency. This includes a £10m contribution to the Active Debris Removal/In-Orbit Servicing (Adrios) programme. An operations centre for the ELSA-d satellite clean-up and decommissioning programme led by Astroscale will be set up later this year in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

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