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Astroscale-UK and the new British satellite

Astroscale-UK has proposed a plan to capture and remove an outdated British satellite from orbit using a robotic arm and guiding it back to Earth for disposal. The UK government is hosting a competition to find the best method to eliminate space debris, and Astroscale-UK's entry, called the Cosmic mission, will compete with ClearSpace's tentacle-like mechanism for capture.

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Astroscale-UK has unveiled a proposal to remove a non-functional British satellite from its orbit. The Oxfordshire-based company plans to deploy an advanced robot arm to capture the defunct hardware and guide it back to Earth for disposal through atmospheric burning. The UK government is currently hosting a competition to select the most effective solution for eliminating space debris, with the winner scheduled to showcase their technology in late 2026 or early 2027. Meanwhile, the UK Space Agency is also considering plans from ClearSpace, a Swiss company with a UK subsidiary that has secured R&D funding from the agency. Given the mounting volume of space junk, including old rocket components, dropped tools, and flecks of paint, it’s crucial to establish active cleaning services, or risk rendering sections of the sky unusable due to collisions, particularly with thousands of satellites set to launch in the coming years.

Astroscale is a Japanese company with a significant branch located at the Harwell science and space campus in the UK. The company’s British team has unveiled information regarding its entry to the government competition, called the Cosmic mission. Cosmic, an acronym for Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture, entails sending a 600-700kg spacecraft into orbit to pursue and capture a long-obsolete satellite that’s adrift in space without control.

The proposed method involves utilizing a robot arm to secure the targeted debris, which poses a challenging task as it may be rotating continuously. Astroscale UK’s managing director, Nick Shave, described rendezvous and proximity operations as a critical technology necessary to approach, safely match the turn rate, and dock with the debris without creating additional space litter. Shave expressed confidence in the company’s capacity to accomplish this complex task, which could pave the way for a new market for debris removal services. “If we can demonstrate our capabilities beyond our current achievements, we could significantly expand the scope of debris removal,” Shave told BBC News.

MDA’s UK division, a subsidiary of the Canadian company, will supply the robotic arm for the Cosmic mission. MDA is renowned for developing the Canadarm2, a robotic arm utilized in critical maintenance operations on the exterior of the International Space Station. Currently in the preliminary design review phase, the Cosmic mission faces competition from ClearSpace, which proposes using a tentacle-like mechanism for capture. Officials are expected to select between the two rival designs in roughly a year’s time. Additionally, there is potential for the victorious mission to launch from the UK, potentially from one of the Scottish rocket facilities currently under construction.

Regardless of which company emerges victorious, Astroscale and ClearSpace intend to gain significant advantages from their participation in the competition, establishing an early foothold in what is likely to be a burgeoning market over the next decade. “If we can get ahead of the game, we can position the UK industry very strongly,” stated Ray Fielding, who oversees UK Space Agency activities. According to various projections, there could be between 30,000 and 50,000 satellites in orbit by 2030, just seven years from now, with many of them potentially requiring removal. Thanks to the UK-based satellite broadband firm OneWeb, the country currently has more active spacecraft in orbit than any nation except for the United States. OneWeb currently operates just over 540 satellites, with more slated for launch this week. The specific obsolete targets for the competition have yet to be determined.

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