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UK Space Agency (UKSA)

The United Kingdom, through the UK Space Agency, maintains an active role in addressing the space debris problem by encouraging coordination at national and international level to reach agreement on effective debris mitigation solutions. Central to this is UK Space Agency's membership of the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), which is an important forum for achieving international consensus on space debris mitigation. UK Space Agency contributes to the IADC by participating in cooperative research activities and working with other member space agencies to formulate debris mitigation solutions and guidelines. In March 2010 the UK participated in the 28th IADC meeting, which was hosted by ISRO in Trivandrum, India.

Another key area in which the UK is actively involved is the development of a series of spacecraft engineering standards for mitigating space debris. Contributions have been provided by UK experts in government, industry and academia to the International Standards Organisation (ISO), where the UK chairs a working group tasked with coordinating all space debris mitigation standards under development within ISO. In drafting the standards care has been taken to align them, as far as possible, with IADC's space debris mitigation guidelines.

To meet its obligations under UN Outer Space Treaties, the UK operates a licensing scheme to permit the launch and operation of UK satellites in outer space. UK Space Agency, as licensing authority, is responsible for issuing the licenses. The conformance of satellites and launch vehicles with debris mitigation guidelines and standards is an important consideration in the decision to grant a license.

The UK space debris community has continued to make notable contributions to measure the debris population and model its long-term evolution, improve impact protection on spacecraft, and develop debris mitigation solutions. A selection of this work is summarised below.

2.Observation of Space Debris

The UK participated in the re-entry prediction campaign in 2010 organized by IADC. The technical lead for risk object re-entry prediction in the UK is Space Insight Ltd which provides support to UK Space Agency on a range of activities related to space situational awareness. This operational support provides amongst other things, information on anticipated re-entries of risk objects, and (using the Starbrook system) monitoring of platforms licensed under the UK's Outer Space Act in order to ensure compliance of licensee's activities with the obligations of the UK under the UN Outer Space Treaties. In addition to its national regulatory role, Starbrook is also used to take observations which form the UK's contributions to the IADC debris population measuring campaigns.

3.In-situ Measurement of Space Debris

The research group at the University of Kent at Canterbury is continuing to work on impacts in space using its in-house light gas gun. Much of the current work has focussed on understanding capture of dust and residues by the NASA Stardust mission in collaboration with other UK groups (i.e. the Natural History Museum, Imperial College London, and Leicester University) and US labs.

4.Debris Environment Modelling

Working with delegates from other agencies in the IADC Working Group 2 (Environment and Databases), UK Space Agency has helped to define the parameters for a study to assess the benefits of Active Debris Removal (ADR). The University of Southampton's evolutionary model DAMAGE is used to investigate the stability of the current LEO debris environment and addressing the issue of ADR. Researchers at the University of Southampton are also developing an empirical model of the thermosphere using satellite drag data, with the aim of understanding and forecasting long-term density changes.

5.Spacecraft Debris Protection and Risk Assessment

The UK continues to participate actively in the IADC Working Group 3 (Protection). The focus of our effort within the group during recent years has been the production of a report, under the UK's leadership, to assess the feasibility and options for implementing impact sensor networks on a variety of spacecraft. The purpose of such a system would be to provide operators with real-time data on the occurrence of impacts and their association with spacecraft anomalies or failures.

6.Debris Mitigation

During the past year, the UK has chaired the IADC Working Group 4 (Debris Mitigation) and contributed to the activities of this Group.

Research is continuing at Cranfield University's Space Research Centre to develop engineering solutions for disposing of spacecraft at end-of-life. One project is currently studying a drag sail concept to de-orbit spacecraft from low Earth orbit. This involves developing a hardware prototype and computational tools to calculate aerodynamic forces for arbitrary spacecraft configurations. Another project focussed on the design of a space tug satellite to inspect, service, and re-orbit spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit. Spacecraft health monitoring is also being studied to support the development of disposal phase operations and design.

Finally, technical experts within ISO's Space Systems and Operations subcommittee (ISO / TC20 / SC14), under a UK project leader, have developed a top-level space debris mitigation standard (designated ISO 24113) for publication. This standard defines the high-level quantitative requirements applicable to all elements of unmanned systems launched into or passing through near-Earth space, including launch vehicle orbital stages, operating spacecraft, and any objects released as part of normal operations or disposal actions. The requirements contained in the standard aim to reduce the growth of space debris by ensuring that spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages are designed, operated, and disposed of in a manner that prevents them from generating debris throughout their orbital lifetime. Methods and processes to enable compliance with these requirements will be provided in a series of lower level implementation standards.