TAMPA, Fla. — The UK Space Agency has awarded study contracts for a mission to remove two spacecraft from low Earth orbit by 2025.

Consortiums led by Swiss startup ClearSpace and Japan-based Astroscale received just under £700,000 ($1 million) between them to complete mission feasibility studies by the end of March.

Under the Active Debris Removal Phase 0-A Feasibility Study being funded by the UK Space Agency, Astroscale and ClearSpace are tasked with researching how to de-orbit two defunct satellites that were not built with retrieval and removal in mind.

Space debris and orbital congestion are some of the biggest challenges facing the global space sector, according to the UK Space Agency, which highlighted an estimated 900,000 pieces of debris in space today, ranging from old satellites to tools dropped by astronauts.

“Growing reliance on satellites for a range of everyday utilities from SatNav to meteorology is making the space tech sector increasingly valuable to the UK economy,” U.K. Science Minister George Freeman said in a statement.

“Our National Space Strategy sets out our vision for a thriving UK space sector that pushes the boundaries of innovation including a specific commitment to lead in clearing space debris.”

Active debris removal

The study participants can choose the two spacecraft they aim to remove as long as they were sent to orbit under a U.K. license, making the British government liable for their potential to create debris issues, according to John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale’s U.K. subsidiary.

Satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics estimates there are currently 14 defunct spacecraft in LEO that were either licensed by the U.K., owned by British entities, or registered by the U.K. with the United Nations.

They are X-3 Prospero and its Waxwing upper stage rocket that launched in 1971, X-4 Miranda in 1973, UoSAT 3,4,5 and 12 that were sent to orbit in the 1990s, SNAP-1 (Surrey Nanosatellite Applications Platform) in 2000, UK-DMC (Disaster Monitoring Constellation) in 2003, Topsat (Tactical Operational Satellite) in 2005, UKube-1 and TDS-1 (TechDemoSat-1) in 2014, UCLSat (University College London Satellite) in 2017 and RemoveDebris in 2018.

In addition, McDowell highlighted other ostensibly British satellites in LEO that “may or may not be mostly dead at this point,” including: UoSAT 2 (also known as OSCAR-11), UK-DMC-2, STRAND-1 (Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), DeorbitSail and Carbonite-1.

Astroscale is partnering with European satellite maker Thales Alenia Space and MDA, the Canadian robotics and satellite systems specialist, for its mission feasibility study.

Thales Alenia Space is focusing on the spacecraft’s propulsion system and in-orbit refurbishment aspects that include refueling, in addition to supporting the assembly, integration and verification of the main servicer spacecraft should it be built.

Auburn told SpaceNews that the Astroscale team’s envisioned Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture, or COSMIC, will be a variant of ELSA-m, a spacecraft being designed to capture and de-orbit three or four objects in a single mission for a constellation customer. Astroscale is working on ELSA-m under a public-private partnership with the European Space Agency and low Earth orbit broadband constellation operator OneWeb.

ELSA-m’s critical design review is on tap for May, supporting a planned 2024 launch of the spacecraft.

Because ELSA-m will use a magnetic capture mechanism, it can only capture satellites that have been equipped with a docking plate before launch.

COSMIC, in contrast, would use “some kind of robotic arm or gripping mechanism” that will enable it to capture a defunct satellite that wasn’t built to be grappled.

The work also has some overlap with a mission Astroscale is working toward for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which is seeking to de-orbit a discarded upper stage of a rocket — without a docking plate.

Auburn said its next launch will be for this Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) mission in 2023, when Rocket Lab will launch its spacecraft to inspect the spent upper stage, ahead of a removal attempt that he has said could take place in 2025.

Meanwhile, the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) spacecraft that Astroscale launched in March continues to perform tests with a tiny client satellite it brought along to act as debris. 

Astroscale demonstrated ELSA-d’s magnetic latching capability Aug. 25, when the servicer successfully completed the first test capture of the debris stand-in

Auburn said the ELSA-d servicer craft will release the client satellite again later this year “at a much greater distance and then test all the automated flight software to capture it again.”

Early next year, Astroscale will use ELSA-d to demonstrate that the servicer craft can capture and de-orbit a tumbling client satellite. 

Astroscale has raised $191 million to date, with its latest Series E funding round last year netting $51 million.

Auburn said the startup is in the middle of a “major fundraising” that could be announced in the next few weeks to accelerate its expansion.

Other players

For the UK Space Agency’s study mission, ClearSpace is teaming up with partners including British small satellite maker SSTL, Spain-based solutions provider Elecnor Deimos and U.K. government-backed nonprofit Satellite Applications Catapult.

ClearSpace, which created a U.K. subsidiary in March, was unable to comment before this article was published.

The Swiss startup said June 30 that it secured its first round of funding of four million Swiss francs ($4.4 million). That is in addition to the 86 million euros ($100 million) that the European Space Agency has invested in its debut ClearSpace-1 debris removal mission, which is due to take place in 2025.

China is also developing debris mitigation technologies, and launched a classified satellite called Shijian-21 to geosynchronous transfer orbit Oct. 23 with few details about the mission.

This article was updated Oct. 26 with comments on the study’s potential satellite targets.

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...