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Space…Jammed with Junk…and Opportunity

On 7th December, the UN approved the call for a moratorium on anti-satellite destructive tests. The debris that tests cause adds dramatically to problematic levels in Space, which has been growing for decades and now seriously congests certain orbits; this must be addressed urgently. Whether tests cease or not, we must clean up Space which the UK could take a lead and in doing so secure a far greater place in the development of key activity in Space.

There are more than 47,000 objects larger than 10cm in space (it was 20k in January 2021) and an even greater number that are smaller, and difficult, if not impossible to track. 17,500 mph collisions make the smallest particles lethal, and these impacts generate yet more debris. This domino effect could lead to the Kesler effect (where collisions generate debris faster than atmospheric drag removes them), which some feel is already happening. If unchecked, Space will become so populated with junk that routine activities on Earth that depend on Space will be disrupted and possibly denied. Tracking this debris is obviously vital but clearing it up, to protect our way of life on Earth and allow safe exploration of Space, is more so.

This is the business of Active Debris Removal (ADR). Satellites with robotic arms, space nets and other mechanisms capture components and despatch them to be burnt up as they re-enter the atmosphere. ADR requires innovative science, clever operational techniques, and skilled piloting to drive satellites to intercept, capture and deal with debris. These are all areas where the UK excels, but scaling them would accelerate debris clearance, expand our industry, and drive-up UK growth. Taking a lead in this would sit well with a broader and more discrete Global Space role for the UK around ‘making Space a safer place’. We lead the UN Security Council legal dialogue on Space Norms, we have a nascent industry around ADR and have a toehold in Space Situational Awareness through our geography and alliances; but we could go further.

ADR technologies and techniques are crucial for In-Orbit Servicing & Manufacture (IOSM) (sometimes referred to as In-Space Servicing, Assembly & Manufacturing – ISAM), which includes ADR, but also maintenance, refuelling, servicing, assembly and manufacture in Space. Acceleration to a ‘make it, don’t take it’ philosophy will rapidly make IOSM a dominant Space activity, directly contributing to Space sustainability by keeping what’s in orbit going for longer. Manufacturing in Space opens the door to a wide array of exciting opportunities, not least enabling Cis-Lunar activity, where construction and employment of vehicles is faster, cheaper and better than those launched from the Earth. Whatever the motivation, mechanism or means, IOSM is fast-growing and a vital Space industry.

The April 2022 The White House ISAM Strategy and last week’s Implementation Plan focused effort and the European Space Agency – ESA has targeted investment at IOSM; the UK must build on this. We have the science, brains, skills, energy and appetite to get after this and have built technical capability around it; if we deepen in ADR now, we will have broadened the industrial base, grown critical skills, burden-shared with allies and built a strong bridge to the much larger, important and more lucrative opportunity from IOSM. Anything we do in this area would ‘make Space a safer place’, catalyse the drive to becoming a ‘Great Science Power’ and accelerate national growth. If 10 Downing Street want the UK to take a lead, we need to turn the National Space Strategy from a list of lofty ambitions into a dynamic, resourced and achievable plan that pulls the Nation to the vanguard. This needs Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to think big and far enough ahead, the UK Space Agency to further mobilise the concept, UKspace to lock-in industry and more companies to secure European Space Agency investment into UK.

The UK is good at ideas, ambition, technology and doing the right thing for the benefit of all, so, leading ADR now, with an eye on a dominant IOSM position in the near-term tugs on all the UK attributes, we just need to join the dots, whilst avoiding debris in orbit.

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