The UK Space Agency is investing £2 million to fund research into refuelling a future mission aimed at removing space junk. This initiative aims to extend the lifespan of satellites and prevent further debris from accumulating in space.
The space environment plays a crucial role in daily life, supporting services such as navigation, weather forecasting, financial services, and television broadcasting. Therefore, it is essential to preserve this environment for future generations, similar to how we do on Earth.
Currently, there are millions of defunct space objects orbiting the planet, including around 37,000 objects measuring larger than 10cm and an estimated 130 million objects measuring less than 1cm. These objects range from old satellites to astronaut tools and even tiny paint flecks. Due to their high velocity, they pose a constant threat to operational satellites.
As part of its efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space, the UK Space Agency is taking the lead in developing UK capabilities to address this issue and demonstrate leadership in sustainable space operations.
One of the initiatives is a national debris removal mission, scheduled for launch in 2026 and designed to be refuelled. With the decreasing costs of satellite launches and the emergence of technologies like highly manoeuvrable satellites capable of docking with others and performing tasks such as refuelling, the UK Space Agency is inviting bids from UK organizations to develop feasibility studies to support this mission and future capabilities.
George Freeman MP, Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, stressed the urgency of addressing the increasing threat posed by space debris. He highlighted the importance of the £2 million funding program by the UK Space Agency in developing ways to refuel inactive satellites, which will contribute to reducing space debris and promoting a resilient space service economy.
Ray Fielding, Head of Sustainability at the UK Space Agency, expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity this funding presents to the UK space sector. In-orbit servicing, including refuelling, is crucial for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the space environment and addressing the risks posed by space debris. These refuelling studies will further support the goal of making satellite operations more sustainable and demonstrate UK leadership in this field.
Richard Lowe, co-Chair of UKspace In-orbit Service & Manufacture (IOSM) Working Group, emphasized that in-orbit refuelling is a key technology that can extend the lifespan of satellites, enable the development of more capable space infrastructure, and help reduce in-orbit debris. The investment by the UK Space Agency paves the way for delivering space services with even more value in a sustainable manner.
The announcement of this research funding coincides with the upcoming UK Space Conference, where global space innovators from government, industry, and academia will gather to shape the future of space.