Astroscale UK, a subsidiary of the Tokyo-headquartered orbital debris removal company Astroscale Holdings Inc., has recently achieved a major milestone ahead of its first UK mission—COSMIC—Clearing Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture.1
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As space technology has become increasingly used in modern science, there is a growing concern surrounding the amount of space technology debris floating around in space. Space debris is of utmost importance when considering the sustainability of space activities.
The increasing amount of space debris poses a significant collision risk to spacecraft and space infrastructure. Specifically, by protecting satellites from collision with space debris, we can protect these critical space assets, ensuring that their use in modern life applications—from communication and navigation to Earth observation and research—can continue undisturbed.
By clearing up space debris, we can avoid the Kessler Syndrome—a theoretical scenario where the amount of space debris surrounding the Earth has become so dense that it is no longer possible to use satellites due to collisions.
The COSMIC mission aims to establish sustainable methods of tracking and reducing this debris, protecting future endeavors in space. The mission represents a significant step forward for the UK government’s mission to lead global efforts in cleaning up space.2
Astroscale’s Milestone Achievement: Completing System Requirements Review
The System Requirements Review (SRR) is a technical review representing a crucial milestone in the journey of any project. This standard exists to assess the functional, performance, technical, and security requirements of the project. Specifically, in this instance, the SRR delved into the evaluation of the mission’s technical requirements, robotic arm designs, and detumbling methodology.
The successful completion of the SRR for Astroscale’s Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission, COSMIC, marks a significant stride toward realization. This accomplishment not only signifies a major milestone but also underscores the effective collaboration between Astroscale and the UK Space Agency at this juncture of the project.
By successfully completing the SSR, Astroscale is one step further in its mission to establish safe and sustainable space activities so that future generations can continue to benefit from space exploration and research. Astroscale worked closely with UK-focused industrial partners and supply chain, which puts the company in a good position for further developing its commercial in-orbit servicing economy.
The COSMIC Mission
The COSMIC mission will utilize a lightweight version of a robotic arm that was used on the International Space Station (ISS) to remove space debris that has been in the Earth’s atmosphere for decades.3
The COSMIC mission has a clear objective: to retrieve two types of satellites owned by the UK that have become space debris. In Earth’s orbit, at altitudes ranging from 500 to 800 kilometers, numerous satellites have lingered for over three decades. Most of these satellites are relatively lightweight, weighing less than 100 kilograms. It is precisely these kinds of space debris that the mission aims to target and remove.
In 2021, Astroscale’s ELSA-d mission demonstrated space debris removal technology, which removed a piece of space debris with a magnetic system. However, for the technology to work, it was necessary for the target satellite to be equipped with a magnetic docking plate. So, this method was limited in terms of the types of debris it could remove.
Astroscale’s new technology overcomes the limitation of its previous space debris removal mission. Its technology will thus be able to target old satellites that have no special features for removal systems to attach themselves to.
The Challenges of Removing Space Debris
Capturing and retrieving space debris presents significant challenges, and predicting the condition of debris after extended periods in space is a daunting task. Specifically, in the context of the COSMIC mission, which aims to capture two defunct satellites, uncertainty looms over whether these satellites have remained structurally intact or sustained damage from collisions. It is difficult to plan for how the harsh environment of space will have impacted the satellites.
To overcome this challenge, Astroscale plans to use autonomous navigation software, tested by ELSA-d alongside a robotic arm built by the same company that produced Canadarm2, used on the ISS in the 1990s. The robotic arm will capture the old satellite by its adapter ring and drag it into a low orbit where it will rapidly enter the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up on the way down.
Future Steps and Collaborative Initiatives
With the successful completion of the SSR, Astroscale has moved closer to its goal of developing a system that can approach, analyze, and capture satellites that do not have special features to facilitate capture.
Astroscale plans to further refine the COSMIC mission in order to meet its next major milestone planned for 2024 - the preliminary design review. If this is passed, the COSMIC mission will be one step closer to success.
Through programs such as COSMIC, the UK will be able to forge its path towards becoming a global leader in cleaning up space.
References and Further Reading
- Astroscale Achieves Major Milestone Ahead of First UK National Mission to Remove Space Debris [online]. Astroscale. Available at: https://astroscale.com/astroscale-achieves-major-milestone-ahead-of-first-uk-national-mission-to-remove-space-debris/ (Accessed October 2023)
- Space sustainability [online]. Gov.uk. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/space-sustainability (Accessed October 2023)
- Creating a sustainable space environment with Astroscale’s UK Active Debris Removal mission [online]. Astroscale. Available at: https://astroscale.com/missions/cosmic/ (Accessed October 2023)