In an ambitious move to address the escalating issue of space debris, the UK Space Agency has earmarked 2 million pounds for research into satellite refueling capabilities that could significantly extend mission lifespans and curtail the proliferation of orbital debris.
The funding targets feasibility studies that will explore practical strategies for refueling a UK-led debris removal mission, alongside examining the prospects for replenishing commercial satellites already in orbit.
With an overabundance of defunct objects encircling the Earth-approximately 37,000 larger than 10 cm and an estimated 130 million smaller than 1 cm-the potential for collisions with active satellites presents a dire challenge. The rapid speeds at which these remnants traverse the space around our planet make them a hazard for essential 'live' satellites that facilitate critical services such as navigation, weather forecasting, communication, and more.
Within the broader framework of initiatives for the preservation of the space environment, the UK Space Agency has positioned itself as a vanguard in the development of domestic capabilities for sustainable space operations. A highlight of these initiatives is a planned UK national debris removal mission, scheduled for launch in 2026, which is being designed with refueling in mind.
This comes at a time when satellite launch costs are decreasing, and innovative technologies are emerging. Highly agile satellites capable of docking and performing in-space tasks, such as refueling, are nearing operational status. The UK Space Agency is calling upon UK entities to deliver feasibility studies that will underpin the mission while fostering future technological advances in this sector.
George Freeman MP, Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, emphasizes the critical nature of tackling the increasing threat that space debris and inactive satellites pose to the vital satellite economy. He acknowledged the role of UK businesses like Astroscale and ClearSpace in developing solutions for in-flight refueling and maintenance that are instrumental in diminishing space debris, enhancing space resilience, and securing a dynamic space service economy.
In the context of these developments, Ray Fielding, Head of Sustainability at the UK Space Agency, expressed his enthusiasm for the opportunities this presents for the UK space sector. He underscored the anticipated importance of in-orbit servicing as a key component in maintaining long-term space environment sustainability. These refueling studies are poised to advance the UK's ambitions for more sustainable satellite operations and its leadership in addressing the compounding dangers posed by space debris.
Echoing the sentiments of industry stakeholders, Richard Lowe, co-Chair of UKspace In-orbit Service and Manufacture (IOSM) Working Group, drew attention to the considerable economic benefits that satellites yield for Earth's inhabitants. He highlighted that current satellites are operationally constrained by their initial fuel reserves. In-orbit refueling, according to Lowe, not only holds the promise of life extension for these satellites but also facilitates the development of more sophisticated infrastructure in space, which could lead to an era of space services offering enhanced value within a framework of increased sustainability.
The UK Space Agency's allocation of funds is not only a progressive step toward safeguarding the vitality of current and future space-based services but also represents an investment in the commercial viability and technological advancement of the UK's space sector.
As the industry advances towards a new frontier where satellites can be refueled and maintained in orbit, the UK Space Agency's investment lays the groundwork for more resilient and sustainable space operations. This strategic focus on space sustainability ensures that the space environment remains a viable domain for innovation and service delivery for generations to come.
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