UK Space Agency funds tech for orbital awareness
New approaches to tracking satellites and debris in orbit will receive a boost from the British Space Agency.
UKSA is donating over £ 1 million to seven companies to help advance new sensor technologies and the intelligent algorithms needed to interpret their data.
Finding better ways to survey objects moving up has become a high priority problem.
With the launch of more and more satellites, concern about the potential for collisions grows.
A major concern is the growing population of redundant hardware and junk in orbit: some 900,000 objects larger than 1cm according to some points, and all capable of doing immense damage, or even destroying, an operational spacecraft in a high-speed encounter. .
Projects supported by UKSA come from a mix of start-ups and more established companies.
The main goal is to improve the ways to locate, characterize and track objects.
Ultimately, this is information that could be fed into the automated traffic management systems of the future that will keep functioning satellites out of harm’s way.
Funded projects include:
- Lift me up: To develop machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to distinguish between satellites and space junk.
- Fujitsu: Also develop quantum-inspired machine learning and processing approaches to improve mission planning to remove debris.
- Deimos is Northern Space and Security: For both to develop a new range of optical sensors to track space objects from the UK.
- Andor: To improve the sensitivity and speed of its camera detection technology to map and track debris objects of ever smaller size.
- D-Orbit UK: To refine the use of recently launched sensors to capture images and characterize objects moving around a spacecraft.
- Lumi Space: The company is developing laser beam technology to accurately locate, characterize and track objects in orbit.
“We have known for some time that the space environment is becoming more difficult, more messy,” said Jacob Geer of UKSA. “Space surveillance and monitoring is one of the key things we can do to keep those satellites we rely on now safe and to make sure some orbits don’t become inaccessible to future generations because there is too much debris in them.
“We had 26 submissions and I think we have selected a good cross-section of ideas in the seven companies we support,” he told BBC News.
While many of these projects are still in the lab stage, D-Orbit’s work is dedicated to pushing the capabilities of some of its hardware already into space.
The company recently launched a vehicle to transport and deploy a number of small satellites. This vehicle uses cameras to photograph its surroundings and to map the stars for navigation purposes.
D-Orbit has the idea of using camera images to identify passing garbage as well.
“One of the challenges of using star trackers is filtering out objects that shouldn’t be there – obviously, because you’re trying to compare what you can see with a star catalog,” explained Simon Reid of D-Orbit. “And of course, it’s those extra objects that are in principle the things that are potentially debris.”
The announcement of the funding also coincides with the signing of a new partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defense and UKSA to work together on awareness of the space domain.
They both have valuable assets and interests in orbit that need to be protected. And for the UK taxpayer, this investment was recently deepened with the bankruptcy acquisition of satellite broadband company OneWeb.
The UK government is now the partial owner of one of the largest spacecraft networks in the sky. OneWeb has so far launched 74 satellites in its communications constellation, with plans to install thousands more.
Affairs Minister Alok Sharma said: “Millions of space junk orbiting the Earth poses a significant threat to the UK’s satellite systems which provide the vital services we all take for granted, from mobile communications to weather forecasting.
“By developing new artificial intelligence and sensor technologies, the seven pioneering space projects we support today will significantly strengthen the UK’s capabilities to monitor these dangerous space objects, helping to create new jobs and protect the services we rely on in the our daily life “.