2 British companies develop space garbage trucks to dispose of inoperative satellites

The spacecraft will use massive robotic arms to collect debris from orbit.

Just like on Earth, debris is a big problem in space. Satellites that have reached “retirement age” remain in low Earth orbit and may collide with functioning satellites or even fall to the planet’s surface. This space debris “clutters” space, complicates future missions, and every year changes its trajectory more and more, increasing the probability of a collision. Fortunately, people who want to clean up the space around our planet have already appeared.

Two British companies are competing for a contract that will enable the winner to actively clean up space debris on behalf of the British Space Agency. Earlier this year, companies received a total of $4.7 million to develop missions that would recover at least two pieces of space debris from low Earth orbit. This will be a demonstration of the ability of the company, which in the future will be able to continuously clean garbage for a long time.

One company is Astroscale, which has expressed a desire to keep Earth’s orbit clean. The company’s current prototype is a satellite called Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J), which identifies space debris in low Earth orbit using a LIDAR device. Observational data obtained by ADRAS-J during the Phase 1 exploration mission will help Astroscale determine which debris needs to be discarded and which can be recycled and used for the company’s benefit. If Astroscale wins the contract, its spacecraft will use a massive robotic arm to collect space debris from orbit.

An image of the Astroscale satellite approaching a piece of space junk for inspection.

The other company, ClearSpace, takes a slightly different approach. The ClearSpace Galactic Garbage Truck will not use one arm to pick up debris from a distance, but multiple arms to “hug” decommissioned satellites and pull them in, which the company says reduces the likelihood of debris flying away. Like a competitor, ClearSpace also plans to launch its own service that will capture and repair broken satellites without even leaving orbit. Traditionally, these operations are performed by astronauts, but these missions are resource intensive. Spacecraft-led missions would ideally do the same job without sacrificing efficiency.

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Astroscale and ClearSpace plan to demonstrate their technologies before October 2023. Both companies’ decisions should be as efficient and independent of each other as possible. They must solve the task of removing all the space junk, which according to the UK Space Agency currently has more than 130 million pieces. Following the completion of the demonstration phase, the UK Space Agency will award a contract to a company to carry out the first national space debris removal mission in 2026.

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