Britain’s first space garbage truck can pick up rubbish with a bear hug – and even pick it up like a robot.
The two technologies are being proposed by companies competing for UK contracts to start clean-up missions as early as 2026.
The winning prototype will track and capture two defunct satellites before throwing them into the atmosphere and burning them up.
The amount of debris orbiting Earth at 18,000 miles per hour is increasingly alarming. Collisions with critical satellites could affect everyday services, including telecommunications and GPS navigation.
Rory Holmes of ClearSpace, one of the competing companies, told Sky News: “We’ve been launching satellites into space for the past six years without really thinking about what will happen to them at the end of their lives.
“When they run out of fuel or burst, we just throw them away. We let them clog the space.
“We’re in a very crowded situation right now with all these different dead things whizzing around, criss-crossing each other’s paths and sometimes colliding and sometimes really getting in the way of what we want to do in space things.”
ClearSpace is designing a spacecraft that looks a bit like a giant squid, with multiple arms extending around a target satellite.
Requires sophisticated robotics
Mr Holmes called it a “bear hug”.
“We have to find a way to capture and enclose these objects so they don’t fly away from us,” he said.
“One of the advantages of the mechanism we have is that we can go around the object completely before pulling it tightly in, to make sure it doesn’t slip off or fly in directions we didn’t expect.”
Another company, Oxfordshire-based Astroscale, will use a spacecraft with a long robotic arm to grab a defunct satellite.
Designing a spacecraft that can assess and capture aging satellites is a huge challenge, said Jason Forshaw, head of the company’s future business.
“Maybe different parts have fallen off the satellite,” he said.
“Sometimes the antenna falls off, sometimes it gets hit by debris.
“So the first challenge is to examine the debris when you get there, to see how it is.
“Then the second stage actually gets closer to it and locks in, and the robotics needed to do that is complex.”
Increased risk of collision
The spacecraft must work autonomously. When dealing with such fast-moving satellites, the radio signal from the ground control center would be too late.
Astroscale wants satellite manufacturers to start adding a standardized docking plate to their designs to make it easier for another spacecraft to lock on, either refuel and service it, or remove it from orbit.
Three tons of space junk heading for the moon
International Space Station forced to dodge debris
According to the UK Space Agency, there are more than 130 million pieces of space debris orbiting Earth, from tiny specks of paint to old satellites, used rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts.
Active satellites and the International Space Station must periodically change orbits to avoid dangerous debris.
But only larger debris can be tracked, and as low-Earth orbit becomes more crowded, the risk of collisions increases.
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Forcing companies to take responsibility for space junk
The simulations suggest that removing large objects before they collide and create smaller debris clouds would reduce the risk of a series of runaway impacts destroying multiple satellites.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has awarded £4 million to two companies to design the cleanup mission.
The agency’s Adam Camiletti said: “We are looking for defunct satellites registered in the UK.
“Those are our satellites. We want to take the lead in being responsible players in space and throw that junk out so it doesn’t threaten anything else.”
The UK space industry already supports 47,000 jobs, generating £16.5 billion a year. But with increasing pressure on countries and companies to take responsibility for their space junk, new opportunities for growth have emerged.
“Being the first to lead, not only in terms of developing proactive debris removal, but also in terms of understanding the laws and guidelines you have to follow, it really shows that the UK is taking its commitments seriously,” Adam said.
“It positions us well for the business going forward. If we’re the first to show it, then we’ll be the go-to place for these contracts.”