UK shortlists Astroscale and ClearSpace for multi-debris removal mission

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TAMPA, Fla. — The UK Space Agency (UKSA) said Sept. 26 it has shortlisted groups led by startups Astroscale and ClearSpace for a mission to remove two spacecraft from low Earth orbit in 2026.

The U.K. divisions of Japan-based Astroscale and ClearSpace of Switzerland won £4 million ($4.28 million) in combined follow-on contracts, following funds awarded in October to study the mission’s feasibility. 

A consortium led by British small satellite maker SSTL had also taken a share of last year’s £1 million Active Debris Removal Phase 0-A Feasibility Study, but was not part of the announcement.

Phase B lasts until October 2023 and will conclude with a preliminary design review. This will include details about the spacecraft they intend to remove, which must have been sent to orbit under a U.K. license.

Astroscale said it has found “a small number of potential UK satellites currently in congested orbit” for what it calls its Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture (COSMIC).

The company, awarded £1.7 million in funding under phase B, plans to work with Canadian startup NorthStar to gather space situational awareness data to help it pick suitable candidates.

COSMIC partners include MDA UK, Thales Alenia Space UK, Nammo, GMV-NSL, NORSS, Goonhilly, Satellite Applications Catapult, and Willis Towers Watson.

The mission would use a variant of the servicer the startup is developing for its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-multiple (ELSA-m) mission, slated to launch in 2024 in partnership with UKSA, broadband operator OneWeb, and the European Space Agency.

ELSA-m is designed to de-orbit more than one satellite in a single mission.

Its capture mechanism relies on magnetic docking plates similar to those on OneWeb satellites, however, COSMIC would need to use robotic technology from its partner MDA to grapple with spacecraft that were not designed to be captured.

The in-orbit capture and release tests Astroscale started performing last year for ELSA-d, or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration, also used a docking plate.

Astroscale is also in the running to remove a discarded upper stage of a rocket for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Rocket Lab is due to launch an Astroscale spacecraft next year to inspect the debris, which does not have a docking plate, ahead of a potential removal attempt a few years later.

Under a contract with the European Space Agency, ClearSpace plans to use a spacecraft with four articulated arms to de-orbit part of a Vega rocket in 2025 in its first mission.

The Swiss startup secured £2.5 million from UKSA for the U.K. de-orbit attempt, which ClearSpace calls the Clearing of the LEO Environment with Active Removal (CLEAR) mission.

SSTL is part of ClearSpace’s consortium, along with Alden Legal, AstroAgency, Critical Software, Deimos, MDA, Orbit Fab, and Satellite Applications Catapult.

UKSA intends to pick just one team for further funding once they have completed their designs next year.

Separately, the space agency Sept. 26 made the first of six calls for funding under its new Enabling Technology Programme (ETP).

The program aims to provide up to £15 million to support the research and development of emerging technology in the country, including for in-orbit servicing and manufacturing.