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The University of Southampton

Space debris removal mission marks key step for long-term in orbital sustainability

Published: 20 July 2021
Aerial shot of Europe
Professor Hugh Lewis' DAMAGE model can simulate the evolution of space debris populations.

A space research collaboration between the University of Southampton and Astroscale UK Ltd has made significant progress in a vision for the safe and sustainable development of Earth’s orbital environment.

The partnership investigated the effectiveness of active debris removal strategies using a space debris model developed by the School of Engineering’s Professor Hugh Lewis.

Astroscale has now launched the world’s first commercial mission to prove the core technologies, known as the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d).

The increase in the number of large satellite constellations will add thousands of satellites to low-Earth orbit over the next decade, increasing the likelihood of collision and posing a risk to the sustainability of the orbital environment.

The Astroscale-Southampton collaboration, funded through the national SPace Research & Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT) programme, evaluated the mounting collision risks while highlighting incentives for satellite operators to engage with active debris removal services.

Professor Lewis’ Debris Analysis and Monitoring Architecture to the Geosynchronous Environment (DAMAGE) model can simulate the evolution of future debris populations.

As part of the SPRINT activity, the software was improved to add the capability to monitor (simulated) large constellations for compliance with international guidelines or for their contribution to collision risk, and to remove failed satellites, according to a prescribed strategy linked to a desired compliance or risk level.

Professor Lewis says: “Many people are concerned about the implications of deploying large constellations of satellites into low Earth orbit, particularly in the contexts of space safety and space sustainability. With this work, we wanted to understand those implications, and to support Astroscale’s aim to explore plausible debris removal services these new space systems.

“In the results, we saw that there were several opportunities for debris removal to reduce the risks associated with large constellations. These are really encouraging findings that will hopefully contribute to efforts to achieve safe and sustainable use of the near-Earth orbital environment.”

Harriet Brettle, Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale, says: “The SPRINT project has enabled us to combine Professor Lewis’ expertise in modelling the orbital environment with the debris removal strategies at Astroscale. This project has given us greater insights into the safety and sustainability challenges that satellite operators may face and refined our understanding of the benefits and impacts of debris removal services.”

View of the Earth from space
Space debris poses a threat to the safety of satellites and the vital

Astroscale successfully launched its ELSA-d mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan this spring. ELSA-d consists of two satellites stacked together: a servicer designed to safely remove debris from orbit and a client satellite that serves as a piece of replica debris.

John Auburn, Managing Director of Astroscale UK and Chief Commercial Officer at Astroscale Holdings, says: “We are at a unique time for the next generation of satellite operators, including many large constellations that ought to consider space debris mitigation for short-term safety and longer-term sustainability.

“The technology is in development to prepare for on-orbit end of life satellite servicing, providers such as Astroscale are willing to develop and deliver debris removal services, and there are growing expectations from the space community, including international actors such as the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the UK Space Agency, to act responsibly in space.”

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