Aerospace & Defence

UK Space Agency allocates funds for space preservation efforts

7th November 2023
Paige West

The UK Space Agency recently allocated a £2m investment for research into the refuelling of a mission designated for the removal of space debris.

This endeavour aims to extend the operational lifespan of satellites while mitigating the addition of further debris in the space environment.

The funding is directed towards feasibility studies that will explore the capability to refuel a UK national debris removal mission. Additionally, the studies will consider the prospects of refuelling commercial satellites.

Space services are fundamental to daily activities, from navigation and meteorology to finance and broadcasting. Maintaining the cleanliness and usability of outer space for forthcoming generations is as critical as preserving Earth's environment.

Currently, numerous inactive space objects orbit Earth. Statistics indicate almost 37,000 objects larger than 10cm, and approximately 130 million smaller than 1cm, ranging from decommissioned satellites to tools lost by astronauts, even including specks of paint. Their high-speed orbits pose a significant hazard to active satellites.

In a bid to foster the long-term sustainability of space, the UK Space Agency is spearheading initiatives to bolster UK capabilities in space environment management, thereby affirming its commitment to more sustainable space operations.

A noteworthy venture is the UK national debris removal mission, set for a 2026 launch, which is designed with refuelling in mind.

With decreasing satellite launch costs and the advent of new technologies, such as agile satellites capable of docking and refuelling, the UK Space Agency is calling for UK entities to submit feasibility study proposals to aid the mission and enhance future space capabilities.

George Freeman, Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, stated: “With millions of pieces of space debris and 3,000 inactive satellites presenting an escalating risk to the satellite-reliant economy – encompassing telecommunications to navigation, air traffic control, and climate science – it's imperative to take action.

“This new £2m programme by the UK Space Agency will contribute to the development of methods for in-space refuelling of dormant satellites. UK firms like Astroscale and ClearSpace are instrumental in in-orbit refuelling and maintenance, playing a crucial role in diminishing space debris, augmenting space resilience, and sustaining a robust space service economy.”

Ray Fielding, Head of Sustainability at the UK Space Agency, commented: “For the UK space industry, this initiative represents a thrilling prospect. In-orbit servicing is anticipated to become a pivotal measure for the enduring sustainability of the space environment. These refuelling studies will back our ambition to make satellite operations more sustainable and affirm UK leadership in addressing the challenges posed by space debris.”

Richard Lowe, co-Chair of UKspace In-orbit Service & Manufacture (IOSM) Working Group, remarked: “Satellites yield significant economic advantages for people on Earth, yet they operate with a finite fuel supply. In-orbit refuelling is an essential innovation that can extend satellite longevity. It also fosters the development of more sophisticated space infrastructure and contributes to debris reduction. This investment marks a step towards more valuable and sustainable space services.”

Further details on the refuelling study call can be found here:  

The announcement precedes the UK Space Conference, scheduled for 21-23 November at ICC Belfast, where space sector innovators from government, industry, and academia will converge to collaboratively envisage the future of space exploration.

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