UK’s Surrey Satellite to help clear space debris
December 14, 2021
By Chris Forrester
Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) is leading a consortium made up of experienced space-related businesses as part of the European Space Agencies ‘Leopard’ project to clear dangerous space debris.
The Leopard study will be led by SSTL and delivered by a consortium of leading UK space companies and academia to benefit from the wide breadth of specialised expertise required to deliver a successful Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission. The Leopard consortium includes Airbus Defence and Space, GMV NSL, Northern Space and Security Limited (NORSS), Satellite Applications Catapult, The University of Lincoln, The University of Surrey and ClearSpace.
SSTL also has a candidate target in space. SSTL’s Cerise satellite was the first verified case of an accidental collision between two manufactured objects in Space back in 1996. CERISE was hit by a catalogued space debris object from an Ariane rocket in 1996, making it the first verified case of a collision between two objects in space. The collision tore off a portion of the satellite’s gravity-gradient stabilisation boom, which left the satellite severely damaged and its performance compromised.
The European Space Agency stated that they perform, on average, two manoeuvres per Earth orbiting satellite per year, with the number of conjunction warnings increasing over time. The recent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test conducted by Russia that created a cloud of new debris at an altitude of between 440km and 520km above Earth has brought the topic of space debris to the fore once again.
Currently, more than 30,000 manufactured non-operational objects are regularly tracked around the Earth; however, many millions of minor objects remain undetected and because the UK is reliant on satellites for services that support critical national infrastructure such as navigation, telecommunications, security and weather forecasting, it has become crucial to remove space debris and prevent further collisions between objects.
The Leopard study will define concepts for de-orbiting two, uncooperative UK space assets from LEO to demonstrate ADR techniques and will also present options for re-purposing the chaser spacecraft once the ADR task is complete, including the ability to be refueled upon mission completion in order to allow the satellite to capture and remove even more debris. SSTL has a number of end-of-life satellites in orbit that could be selected as targets for the LEOPARD ADR mission, an advantage that provides additional knowledge of the target spacecraft design and operational state – crucial factors for the success of an ADR mission.
“SSTL understands the risks of space debris.” said SSTL’s Managing Director, Phil Brownnett. “We have significant expertise derived from over 500 operational satellite years and together with our work on ADR demonstrator missions such as RemoveDEBRIS and Astroscale’s ELSA-d we are driving new concepts and technologies capable of delivering a milestone double Active Debris Removal mission for the UK. We are committed to combating the issue of space debris to keep satellites operating safely and provide a sustainable future for space missions.”