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September 16, 2020

AI harnessed to tackle space debris with £1m from UK Space Agency

By Lucy Ingham

The UK Space Agency has today announced seven projects that have received a share of £1m funding to combat space debris using sensors or artificial intelligence (AI).

Space debris is a growing and serious problem, with the risk of collision increasing as growing numbers of satellites are deployed. However, the amount of debris littering orbit is not fully known, with estimates for pieces bigger than 1cm ranging from 900,000 to 160 million.

“People probably do not realise just how cluttered space is. You would never let a car drive down a motorway full of broken glass and wreckages, and yet this is what satellites and the space station have to navigate every day in their orbital lanes,” Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

The fund announced today is designed to help the UK tackle the issue as it increases its presence in space, and is joined by an announcement of a joint initiative on the issue from the UK Space Agency and Ministry of Defence.

“In this new age of space megaconstellations the UK has an unmissable opportunity to lead the way in monitoring and tackling this space junk,” said Turnock.

“This funding will help us grasp this opportunity and in doing so create sought after expertise and new high skill jobs across the country.”

The UK companies using AI, sensors to identify space debris

All of the companies awarded funding are focused on using technologies such as AI to identify the presence of and risks posed by space debris.

Among these is Lift Me Off, which is developing machine learning algorithms in order to distinguish between satellites and space debris, and Fujitsu, which will use machine learning and what it calls “quantum-inspired processing” in order to boost planning for space debris removal.

Meanwhile, Andor will use its share of funds to increase its astronomy camera to map smaller space debris, and both Northern Space and Security and Deimos will produce new optical sensors that are capable of tracking individual pieces of debris from the UK. Lumi Space will also support the tracking of small space debris using satellite laser ranging technology.

D-Orbit, meanwhile, will tackle the issue from space, by pairing a debris-spotting sensor on its satellite platform with a technique developed at the University of Strathclyde known as Passive Bistatic radar.

“Millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the earth present a significant threat to UK satellite systems which provide the vital services that we all take for granted – from mobile communications to weather forecasting,” said Alok Sharma, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy.

“By developing new AI and sensor technology, the seven pioneering space projects we are backing today will significantly strengthen the UK’s capabilities to monitor these hazardous space objects, helping to create new jobs and protect the services we rely on in our everyday lives.”

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