Earlier this month, the International Space Station (ISS) had to deviate and perform an evasive maneuver to avoid being hit by space debris from the Russian anti-satellite test. It was reminiscent of a similar evasive action he had to take last December to avoid getting in the way of an American launcher.
Abandoned launch vehicles or pieces of spacecraft and satellites that have run their course constitute space debris, or “space junk”, which can endanger living satellites or the space station by floating in space.
There are currently thousands of tons of space junk surrounding the Earth, including dead satellites, discarded rocket parts, and other material items. Several countries and space agencies are aware of the challenge facing space debris, with many missions planning to clean it up themselves.
The pace of commercial satellite launches over the next 10 years will fuel a space debris crisis. Unless we regulate reasonably.
That’s why I’m delighted to be launching a new UK plan and working with HRH The Prince of Wales @ClarenceHouse on the leadership of the United Kingdomð¬ð§ in #cleanspaceð#SWFSummit22 https://t.co/jFbqcflT6S
â MP George Freeman (@GeorgeFreemanMP) June 22, 2022
In an ambitious new space venture, the UK has pledged Â£5m to sponsor a space debris cleanup mission. The project aims to accomplish the first mission of its kind by returning two missing satellites to the Earth’s atmosphere.
UK Science Minister George Freeman has underlined the country’s commitment to keeping Earth’s orbit clean as part of Britain’s plan for space sustainability. This includes developing regulatory guidelines for the safe operation of satellites and reducing insurance costs for sustainable missions.
The UK Science Minister’s announcement follows the announcement earlier this month by the European Space Agency (ESA) that it was working with Britain to manufacture the first spacecraft to be launched to capture missing satellites from Earth orbit.
The British Minister of Science then revealed that the British company Astroscale and OneWebb had teamed up with the ESA to clean up space debris.
However, the new mission announced by the United Kingdom will be different from the one it is pursuing in collaboration with ESA. The new mission will be able to collect multiple satellites at once, a capability that has yet to be demonstrated.
UK plan to collect space waste
A spacecraft will be deployed in orbit by 2026 as part of the Active Debris Removal Mission, announced last year.
When he arrives, he will travel to two former UK satellites orbiting the Earth and bring them back into the atmosphere, to burn up, demonstrating the ability of a single spacecraft to remove multiple junk.
“Removing multiple pieces of debris with one vehicle is the right way to go,” said Hugh Lewis of the University of Southampton, UK. More than 30,000 pieces of debris, including more than 2,500 dead satellites, are tracked in Earth orbit.
With the debris collection spacecraft slated to be left in Earth orbit and possibly available for refueling in the future to tackle more waste, the UK mission will be the first in the world to target many pieces instead of just one.
The companies vying for the contract are Clearspace, the Japanese-British company Astroscale and the British company Surrey Satellite Technology. A single company will be chosen for the assignment by the end of 2023 with a contract worth up to Â£60million.
Of more than a dozen potential targets, the two decommissioned British satellites that will be chosen have yet to be determined. The three companies offered different methods to carry out the task envisioned by the UK.
Earlier in 2018, the ISS had would have deployed the first-ever satellite to test possible solutions for cleaning up space junk. The satellite named “RemoveDEBRIS” was built in Britain and was one of the world’s first attempts to combat the accumulation of space debris in low Earth orbit.
Meanwhile, at the end of January this year, China demonstrated remarkable space waste collection and disposal that impressed the world.
China sent missing satellites to cemetery
A Chinese satellite was seen in late January grabbing another long-missing satellite and dropping it into a âgraveyardâ orbit 300 kilometers from geostationary orbit a few days later. A graveyard orbit is a place in space several miles from geostationary orbit where objects are less likely to strike spacecraft.
Geostationary orbits allow satellites to align with the Earth’s rotation and appear to be fixed above a location below, making the GEO belt an orbital home for weather, communications and surveillance satellites.
China’s Shijian-21 satellite successfully captured the defunct Beidou-2 G2 satellite and towed it to a “graveyard orbit” before returning to geostationary orbit. The Chinese satellite SJ-21 was able to function as a space tug. pic.twitter.com/iJVLpnwIvh
âSpartackus (@elskorpione) May 16, 2022
Upon undertaking this maneuver, the Beidou satellite was successfully carried out of harm’s way by the subsequent docking and engine burn-up, as before. reported by Space News.
On January 26, Shijian-21 disengaged from Beidou-2 G2, placing the retired satellite into disposal orbit, and returned to geostationary orbit.
With private satellites cluttering space alongside increasing competition between world powers, space debris is only expected to increase in the foreseeable future. As states prepare for the challenge, debris reduction may soon become a business.