UK Space Industry and the First Satellite Dedicated to Cleaning the Orbit
The Clearspace-1 satellite, or ‘The Claw’, represents the first step towards a clean space environment by being the first space debris removal dedicated mission. Through Elecnor DEIMOS, the UK plays a vital role in the development of the spacecraft, by designing its Attitude and Orbit Control System (AOCS).
Current State of Space Debris
With over 2666 operational satellites and over 128 million pieces of debris flying around (ESA, February 2020), the space junk issue has never been more pressing. The commercialisation of space is crowding Earth’s orbit at an unprecedented rate, with hundreds of spacecrafts being launched into space every year. The growing popularity of mega-constellations will only make matters worse, firstly by increasing the collision risk through rising the satellite density and secondly by increasing the debris rate, if the satellites are not decommissioned into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their life.
What is more, the growing number of space items can lead to what is known as the ‘Kessler syndrome’, which represents a state where the object density is so high that one collision is enough to generate a cascade effect, leading to further collisions. Apart from endangering both human and technological presence in space, such an event would have serious socio-economic implications, from rendering certain orbits unusable to interrupting services such as the internet or communications among many others. To avoid this scenario and ensure our future in space, mitigation strategies and clean-un technologies are already being developed.
UK and The Claw
A Swiss start-up ClearSpace was authorised by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2019 to lead a European effort of developing the necessary technology for the successful removal of unwanted space items. The start-up represents a spin-off company of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL), with broad expertise in space debris and robotics. Upon its selection, a consortium led by the EPFL start-up was formed, with 8 countries involved in the mission: Switzerland, the UK, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden. Its first task is to capture and ensure the reentering and burn of the 100-kg Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage in the atmosphere, which was left on orbit in 2013 following the second flight of ESA’s Vega rocket.
To ensure the completion of the first task, the consortium developed the Clearspace-1 satellite, otherwise known as ‘The Claw’, which is scheduled for launch in 2025. Successful demonstrations of debris removal technology have been carried out in the past with simulated debris pieces by another European consortium led by Surrey University’s Surrey Space Centre in 2018. Nonetheless, the Clearspace-1 spacecraft is the first satellite dedicated to removing an actual debris item from Earth’s orbit, thus representing a fundamental step towards a more sustainable European space sector.
The satellite uses a pincer motion in order to capture the Vespa stage using its robotic arms. Following the seize of the rocket piece, the spacecraft and the captured object will re-enter the atmosphere and burn together. In order to successfully grab the debris item, the UK is designing the system responsible for orienting and positioning the satellite (Attitude and Orbit Control System, AOCS). The system utilises thrusters, antennas and power generators and is designed by Elecnor DEIMOS UK. It will later be integrated with the Guidance, Navigation and Control system, which is currently being developed by Elecnor DEIMOS Portugal alongside other German and Portuguese organisations.
Amanda Solloway Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation said the following:
There are millions of hazardous pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth – if a single one collides with a satellite it could interfere with vital everyday services that we all rely on like broadband or GPS. […] The first ever interstellar clean-up mission, driven by ground-breaking British scientists and researchers, is just another example of how the UK’s space sector is out of this world”
With the UK already being a global leader in satellite technology and at the heart of space sciences, its involvement in this project represents the beginning of a sustainable UK space industry, ready to meet the increasing space technology demand in the most responsible way.
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