TAMPA, Fla. — A consortium led by British small satellite maker SSTL has secured UK Space Agency funding to study a mission to remove two spacecraft from low Earth orbit by 2025.

The consortium joins two other groups that won funding in October to complete mission feasibility studies by the end of March, one led by Swiss startup ClearSpace and another by Japan-based Astroscale.

A UK Space Agency official said the three groups are getting about £1 million ($1.3 million) in total funding under the Active Debris Removal Phase 0-A Feasibility Study, roughly split between them.

“The lag in announcing the third study was due to the fact that the SSTL study involves is a larger consortium and it took longer to complete the paperwork with the UK Space Agency,” SSTL public relations manager Joelle Sykes said.

SSTL’s team includes Airbus Defence and Space, satellite navigation specialist GMV NSL, space situational awareness startup NORSS, U.K. government-backed nonprofit Satellite Applications Catapult and two academic institutions: University of Lincoln and University of Surrey.

Notably, ClearSpace is also part of the SSTL-led consortium, which the smallsat maker calls LEOPARD (Low Earth Orbit Pursuit for Active Debris Removal).

ClearSpace is responsible for consulting with customers for LEOPARD and analyzing future market needs.

There are many interconnections between the three study groups defining a mission to remove multiple defunct spacecraft from orbit.

The separate consortium that ClearSpace is leading includes SSTL and Satellite Applications Catapult.

SSTL also built the client spacecraft Astroscale is currently servicing in LEO to demonstrate debris-removal technologies, under the Japanese startup’s End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission.

According to SSTL, it has worked on a number of end-of-life satellites in orbit that could be selected for LEOPARD, giving it an advantage over others because it has additional knowledge of designs and operational states. 

The study groups are tasked with removing two defunct spacecraft that were sent to LEO under a U.K. license. Satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has estimated there are at least 14 spacecraft that meet the criteria. 

“We’re not ready to declare which of our end-of-life satellites may be targets for de-orbit at this stage in the study as the selection will depend on doing more work on the de-orbiting technologies first,” Sykes said.

SSTL said it also aims to draw on knowledge gained from participating in the RemoveDEBRIS project, which the British satellite maker said concluded a series of debris retrieval demonstrations in January 2019.

Airbus Defense and Space was also part of RemoveDEBRIS, which was led by the University of Surrey and sponsored by the European Commission and the Surrey Space Center.

The LEOPARD study also aims to present options for re-purposing the “chaser” spacecraft it plans to use to remove space debris, including the ability to be refueled for further missions.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...