Mission planning software tracks space debris and optimizes its collection


Researchers have developed mission planning software that can optimize the collection of space debris.

The researchers from Fujitsu UK and Ireland, Astroscale UK, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the University have partnered on the UK Space Agency project over the last year. The prototype solution they have developed tracks and optimize the collection of space debris – defunct satellites and space vehicles – using artificial intelligence and “quantum-inspired” computing.

The prototype will improve mission planning so that a single spacecraft can efficiently select which pieces of space debris to remove in one mission, and at a much faster rate than is currently possible.

The removal of space debris is key to sustainability in space, reducing, or even preventing, the risk of obsolete spacecraft colliding with new and existing satellites.

There are 2,350 non-working satellites currently in orbit. Supporting debris removal missions with Fujitsu’s technology will help to reduce the risk of catastrophic collisions in orbit which could create thousands of other pieces of new debris.

The prototype mission planning software optimizes the mission plan to determine the minimum-fuel and minimum-time required to bring inoperable spacecrafts or satellites safely back to the disposal orbit.

Ellen Devereux, digital annealer consultant at Fujitsu UK and Ireland, said, “All space debris poses a potential collision risk to the operational systems many of us take for granted – from weather forecasting to telecommunications.

“With the UK Space Agency’s backing, along with Astroscale UK, AWS and the University of Glasgow, we’ve designed a solution to optimize the mission planning of a servicing craft before it is sent into space – meaning organizations like Astroscale UK can pick up more debris, more quickly than ever before.

“This technology has huge implications for optimization in space; not only when it comes to cleaning up debris, but also in-orbit servicing and more. Now we better understand its potential, we can’t wait to see the technology applied during a future mission.”

Astroscale UK is the world’s first commercial company to start a demonstration mission to remove debris from the lower Earth orbit and provided the end-use case as a representative user of multi-target mission optimization.

Stephen Wokes, engineering director at Astroscale UK said, “Finding the optimal mission plan manually is time consuming and complex. Astroscale UK is leading a pioneering next step for the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale [ELSA] Programme to remove not just one piece of debris, but multiple debris objects with a single servicer satellite, known as ELSA-M, which presents a substantially more economical way of removing debris from orbit.”

Dr Matteo Ceriotti, lecturer in Space Systems Engineering at the University of Glasgow, said, “We have been involved in this project from the very outset – developing the trajectory models needed to effectively remove space debris, as well as estimating the cost of the transfers.” 

The research has been carried out as part of the UK Space Agency grant “Advancing Research into Space Surveillance and Tracking”. The project, which was developed over six months in accordance Government Digital Services guidelines, leverages both Artificial Neural Network (ANN)-based rapid trajectory design algorithms, developed by the University of Glasgow, alongside Fujitsu’s Digital Annealer and Quantum Inspired Optimisation Services to solve some of the main optimisation problems associated with ADR (Active Debris Removal) mission planning design.

Amazon Web Services, provided the Cloud and AI and ML (machine learning) tools and services to support the project. The Amazon Sagemaker toolset was used to rapidly develop the ANNs that accurately predict the costs of orbital transfers in a fraction of the time it would take to calculate them in full.

Fujitsu, which led the project, is one of seven UK companies to be awarded a share of over £1 million from the UK Space Agency to help track debris in space.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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