Three projects at the University of Strathclyde to tackle the problem of space debris have won funding of more than £500,000 from the UK Space Agency. 

A total of £1.7m of funding for 13 projects was announced by UK Science Minister George Freeman during a visit to the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire where he was joined by Paul Bate, CEO of UK Space Agency. 

Orbital congestion created by space debris is one of the biggest global challenges facing the space sector. There are currently an estimated 330 million pieces of space debris, including 36,500 objects bigger than 10cm, such as old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts orbiting Earth.  

Space debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and present a real danger to the rapidly increasing number of new satellites being launched each year which provide vital services, including communications, banking and monitoring climate change.  

Global partners

The Strathclyde projects, which are being led by Professor Massimiliano Vasile and Dr Christie Maddock from the Aerospace Centre of Excellence (ACE), a multidisciplinary research group within the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, are: 

  • Hyperspectral Imager for Space Surveillance and Tracking (HyperSST), in partnership with Fraunhofer UK Research Ltd, Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics  (£169,500) – which will demonstrate the use of new hyperspectral imaging sensors to detect and characterise objects orbiting around the Earth. HyperSST will mix advanced hyperspectral technology with modern deep learning techniques to better understand the composition of space objects, their motions and predict their intentions. 
  • Artificial Intelligence for Space Surveillance and Tracking (AI4SST) in partnership with: Imperial College London, D-Orbit UK (£153,500) – which will use the Computational Agent for Space Situational Awareness aNd Debris Remediation Automation (CASSANDRA) framework, which incorporates advanced artificial intelligence technology, to help operators manage traffic in orbit and avoid collisions between satellites and space debris. Project AI4SST will endow CASSANDRA with the ability to accurately forecast the position of space objects starting from radar observations. CASSANDRA will then be able to assist operators to make informed and reliable decisions on whether to perform a collision avoidance manoeuvre or schedule a new radar observation.
  • Fast determination of satellite re-entry and fragmentation (FASTFRAG), in partnership with Imperial College London, D-Orbit UK (£199,000) – which will look at the critical role that fast, physically accurate tools for the analysis of the re-entry of controlled and uncontrolled objects play for many in the space sector. In particular, improved modelling and simulation of the deformation and fragmentation is paramount to design systems for safe demise and assessing the associated risk. Joints are critical components of a spacecraft when it comes to fragmentation, and this project will develop models to predict the structural failure of primary joints and hinges on satellites subject to high aero-, thermo- and flight dynamic loads, integrating the models and tools into an existing open-source framework for analysis of atmospheric re-entry. This will allow the UK to achieve a competitive edge against European counterparts in the challenging race towards a sustainable use of space.  

Professor Massimiliano Vasile, Director of ACE and project lead for HyperSST and AI4SST, said: “We are delighted to have won funding from the UK Space Agency for these three projects which will help to ensure the sustainable use of space. 

“The future of space flight and satellite applications, our reliance on which will only grow, demands that we work hard to ensure to reduce the risks that orbital debris present. The Aerospace Centre of Excellence at Strathclyde is well-placed to play a leading role in promoting space sustainability alongside our global partners.” 

Dr Christie Maddock, who is the project lead for FASTFRAG, said: “Addressing the risk of the atmospheric re-entry of space debris is progressively becoming more and more pressing due to the increase in the number of orbiting objects, the consequent higher frequency of re-entry and the need to ensure that any new satellite or spacecraft is operated safely throughout its life.” 

Space exploration

Science Minister George Freeman said: “Like debris on Everest, the first generation of space exploration and satellite launch has left millions of pieces of dangerous satellite fragments and 4,000 redundant satellites in orbit. 

“As our reliance on satellites for everyday activity grows, and the UK becomes a leading hub of small satellite design, manufacturing and launch this year via Virgin Orbit in Cornwall, this debris now poses a serious threat to our £16 billion space sector. 
“That’s why we have made debris mitigation and removal – and the long-term importance of space sustainability – key elements of our National Space Strategy. 
“These projects will help put the UK at the forefront of both protecting the space environment for future activity, and accelerating UK technology leadership.” 

The UK’s National Space Strategy has set out a bold vision for the sector and recognises the need for the country to lead in making space safe and sustainable. The new funding supports the development of underlying technology or data processing capabilities for space surveillance and tracking to support the removal of orbital debris. 

In 2021 the UK Space Agency worked with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to support the next stage of international efforts to promote space sustainability and provided funding to research a UK led mission to remove junk from space.