New approaches to tracking satellites and dirt in orbit are getting a boost from the UK Space Agency.
UKSA provides over £ 1m. To seven companies to help advance new sensor technologies and the smart algorithms needed to interpret their data.
Finding better ways to monitor objects moving overhead has become a high priority issue.
With more and more satellites being launched, there is growing concern about the potential for collisions.
A major concern is the growing population of redundant hardware and scrap in orbit – some 900,000 objects larger than 1 cm by some counts, and all of this is capable of damaging huge or even destroying an operational spacecraft in a high-speed encounter.
The projects supported by UKSA come from a mix of start-ups and more established companies.
The overall goal is to improve ways of spotting, characterizing and tracking objects.
Ultimately, this is information that can be fed into the automated traffic management systems of the future that keep functioning satellites out of harm’s way.
The funded projects include:
- Lift me off: To develop machine learning and artificial intelligence to distinguish between satellites and space debris.
- Fujitsu: To also develop machine learning methods and quantum-inspired treatment to improve mission planning to remove dirt.
- We say and 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 detector technology to map and track ever smaller pieces of debris.
- D-Orbit UK: To refine the use of newly launched sensors to take pictures of and characterize objects moving around in a spacecraft.
- Lumi Space: The company is developing laser-ranking technology to again spot, characterize and track objects in orbit.
“We have long known that the space environment is getting harder and more messy,” said Jacob Geer of UKSA. “Space monitoring and tracking is one of the most important things we can do to protect the satellites we trust now and to ensure that certain orbits do not become inaccessible to future generations because there is too much waste in them. .
“We had 26 proposals coming to us and I think we have chosen 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 capacity of some of its hardware already in space.
The company recently launched a vehicle to carry and implement a clutch of small satellites. This vehicle uses cameras to photograph the surroundings and to map the stars for navigation.
D-Orbit has the idea of using the cameras’ images to also identify passing junk.
“One of the challenges of using star trackers is filtering objects that shouldn’t be there – of course because you’re trying to compare what you see to a star catalog,” explained Simon Reid of D-Orbit. “And it’s, of course, the extra objects that are, in principle, the things that are potentially waste.”
The funding announcement also coincides with the signing of a new partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defense and UKSA to work together on space domain awareness.
Both have valuable assets and interests in circuits that need to be protected. And for the UK taxpayer, this investment was recently deepened with the purchase of bankruptcy by the OneWeb satellite broadband company.
The British government is now co-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 provide thousands more.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “Millions of pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth pose a significant threat to British satellite systems, which provide the vital services we all take for granted – from mobile communications to weather forecasts.
“By developing new AI and sensor technology, the seven groundbreaking space projects we are backing up today will significantly strengthen the UK’s ability to monitor these dangerous space objects and help create new jobs and protect the services we trust in our daily lives. ”
and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos