A satellite nicknamed ‘The Claw’ designed to move useless space junk is set to be built using vital technology from the UK.
The idea of a machine for removing of space debris might sound like science fiction, but the Clearspace-1 space mission is 100 per cent real, and planned for 2025.
It’s the first mission of its kind – dedicated to removing an existing object in orbit – and the UK will play a critical role in getting it up and running.
The Claw will use a pincer motion to collect debris, before giving it a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to decompose safely and away from life and cleaning up the space environment, reports PA news agency.
Elecnor Deimos, an aerospace and defence company based in the UK, are set to design Clearspace-1’s Attitude and Orbit Control System (AOCS).
The system is essential to orientate and position the satellite to help grab the space junk using power generators, thrusters and antennas.
For the fourteen billion years between the big bang and the autumn of 1957, space was pristine – but since then, humans have placed almost 10,000 satellites in the sky, the vast majority of which are now defunct or destroyed.
There are estimated to be more than 160 million objects in orbit, most of which are “space junk”, according to the OECD.
This debris comes in all different shapes and sizes, from spent rocket bodies to a camera and a spatula dropped by an astronaut.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “From broadband to tracking climate change, satellites have immeasurable benefits on all of our lives.
“But as many of them break into space debris, it’s vital that we take a global leadership role in preventing them from becoming space hazards.
“We plan to be at the forefront of efforts to track and remove this junk, and I am delighted that technology supporting this pioneering ambition is going to be made right here in Britain.”
At the start of 2020, the UK Space Agency announced new investments, funded through its space surveillance and tracking (SST) programme.
Not only will the work supercharge the UK’s capabilities to track junk, it will also help to monitor any risk of potentially dangerous collisions with satellites or even the crewed International Space Station.
Two years ago, a British satellite, run by removeDEBRIS, successfully deployed a net in orbit 186 miles above the earth to demonstrate how to capture space debris.
The demonstration, using a small object sent out by the satellite, formed part of a mission to test techniques to clear up space junk.
The mission was equipped with vision-based navigation (VBN) technology, which essentially tells a pursuing spacecraft how its target is behaving – how it is moving and even tumbling.
Ismael Lopez, chief executive of Elecnor Deimos Group, said: “Clearspace-1 is the confirmation of our role as a key guidance, navigation and control systems provider in Europe.
“This is a very innovative mission and we are thrilled that the expertise and capacity across our companies match the technology challenges required.”
Following European Space Agency (ESA) approval for the Clearspace mission concept in 2019, Swiss start-up ClearSpace – a company with expertise in space debris in robotics – began co-ordinating the mission, bringing together a consortium of expertise which includedElecnor Deimos.
The AOCS will be integrated in the overall satellite autopilot – the guidance, navigation and control system being developed by the company in Portugal, together with other German and Portuguese entities.
“This consortium will also perform tests to support ClearSpace in the assembly, testing and operation of the mission.”