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UK Space Agency funds tech for orbital awareness

BBC Technology 15 Sep 2020 11:33
By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent
D-Orbit's carrier vehicle has cameras that could also look for nearby space debrisImage copyright D-ORBIT

New approaches to tracking satellites and debris in orbit are to get a boost from the UK Space Agency.

UKSA is giving over £1m to seven firms to help advance novel sensor technologies and the smart algorithms needed to interpret their data.

Finding better ways to surveil objects moving overhead has become a high priority issue.

With more and more satellites being launched, there's growing concern about the potential for collisions.

A big worry is the burgeoning population of redundant hardware and junk in orbit - some 900,000 objects larger than 1cm by some counts, and all of it capable of doing immense damage to, or even destroying, an operational spacecraft in a high-velocity encounter.

The overriding goal is to improve ways to spot, characterise and track objects.

The funded projects include:

Image copyright DEIMOS

"We had 26 proposals come to us and I think we've selected a good cross-section of ideas in the seven companies we're supporting," he told BBC News.

The company recently launched a vehicle to carry and deploy a clutch of small satellites. This vehicle uses cameras to photograph its surroundings and to map the stars for the purposes of navigation.

"One of the challenges in using star trackers is filtering out objects that are not supposed to be there - obviously, because you're trying to compare what you can see against a star catalogue," explained D-Orbit's Simon Reid. "And, of course, it's those extra objects which in principal are the things that are potentially debris."

Both have valuable assets and interests in orbit that need protecting. And for the UK taxpayer, this investment was recently deepened with the purchase out of bankruptcy of the OneWeb satellite broadband company.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: "Millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth present a significant threat to UK satellite systems which provide the vital services that we all take for granted - from mobile communications to weather forecasting.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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UKSAJacob GeerSpace AgencyUKSimon Reid