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There’s been great celebration around what humankind has been able to send into space over the past century.

But as more and more satellites and other technologies have been sent up into space, a collection of debris has gathered. Leaving it like this isn’t sustainable – space must be cleaned up.

Emily Mills, Domestic Space Surveillance and Tracking Lead at UK Space Agency, puts it into Earth-terms: “It’s like driving down the motorway, if the wreckage from every crash that there has ever been was still there.” After a while, it becomes impossible and too dangerous to navigate, which puts at risk our critical space-based assets such as satellite communications systems, and even the future of space exploration.

Unchecked there’s a risk that a collision of debris such as old satellites could create hundreds of smaller pieces of debris and start a domino effect which threatens every other object in their orbit. It’s an effect known as Kessler Syndrome, which was the basis for the Hollywood Blockbuster: Gravity.

In a bid to prevent “Gravity” from becoming reality, the UK Space Agency initiated seven grant-funded space debris innovation projects to support making space sustainable. On one of these projects, Astroscale, AWS, Fujitsu, and the University of Glasgow (UoG) collaborated to see how we could make space debris missions more commercially viable by using leading-edge technology; Fujitsu’s Quantum-inspired Digital Annealer and Artificial Neural Networks (AI).

The issue of time

It takes years to put together a mission in space. Firstly, because there are so many scientific calculations to be made and possibilities to consider, to ensure a mission is prepared for the task at hand. Secondly, from a practical perspective, it takes years to travel to locations in space.

To add to the challenge, the problem of space debris is expanding rapidly. During the 80s and mid-90s, US space shuttles visited space around 60 times, and in 75% of those missions their windscreens had to be replaced due to a collision with debris. More recently, over the past two decades, the International Space Station has had to move out of its orbit 20 times to avoid collision risks, and in May astronauts discovered its robotic arm had been hit and damaged by a piece of debris.

As debris objects can remain in orbit for hundreds of years, we must ensure the most obstructive pieces are prioritised in retrievals and that these missions are as efficient as possible. So, how can the process be streamlined and sped up?

Speeding up the mission time

Astroscale are world leaders in Active Debris Removal (ADR) and have successfully launched the first commercial demonstration of a removal of a single piece of debris with Elsa-D.  But they’re also planning multi-debris removal missions, Elsa-M, which becomes exponentially more complex to ensure the mission is optimally efficient and that the right pieces of debris are collected in the right sequence. However, what if an optimisation solution could create optimal mission plans in a split second, allowing expert validation and feedback alterations moments later?

This requires a huge degree of collaboration from different organisations with varying expertise and services. The UK Space Agency orchestrated this project through a Grant funding intiative. Astroscale are the ADR subject-matter experts of this enterprise and provide the operation framework. The University of Glasgow are bringing orbital dynamics research experience to develop neural networks which they use to calculate the time and cost of orbital transfers in Low Earth Orbit. AWS provide the Amazon Sagemaker toolkit to enable UoG to create artificial neural networks. Meanwhile, Fujitsu manage the overall project and provide the Digital Annealer as the optimisation backbone that computes the optimum mission plan from billions of options in less than a second.

Together, we are working to speed up the process of planning for space debris removal missions.

A celestial future

Using quantum-related technology and AI together is unchartered territory for the space sector. But we expect it to become more commonplace in the future, especially as the UK strives to be at the fore of space sustainability and innovation, and the G7 nations have committed to the safe and sustainable use of space.

There is, of course, a huge amount still to do before we can come close to saying that the problem of space debris has been successfully tackled.  But there’s greater awareness of the issue through the work of the UK Space Agency and with the likes of Astroscale and this sort of project, innovative steps are being taken to help solve it.

This optimisation capability can also potentially be applied to solving other issues within space. For example, as the commercial aspects of space is multiplying at an incredible rate, there will be many more satellites and nano satellites, which will be another optimisation problem that will be hard to manage. In 2020, 1,200 satellites were launched, up from 365 in 2018. Just one project, SpaceX’s ambitious Starlink, aims to launch 12,000 small satellites by 2027.

We’re also looking at how the work of the Digital Annealer in optimising the networks of telecommunications companies could be transferred to optimising space-based satellite communication networks.

In the meantime, the project that we’ve been working on right now with our fellow collaborators is promising, not just because it gives us the chance to support making space sustainable, but it also proves how new technologies can provide the right tools to open up a universe of opportunities.

You can bring the benefits of this project back down to Earth and into your business, find out how here.

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