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Avoiding space jams and finding space junk – with unprecedented precision

A UK start-up company is developing ground-based laser technology that can pinpoint, down to the centimetre, the exact distance between Earth and a satellite in low earth orbit. 

That’s like being able to see if someone’s door in Glasgow is ajar – from London!

Since the first satellite launched in 1957, the size, weight and cost of satellites has decreased by 100 times. What was once the size of a van can now be as small as a shoebox. With plans to launch up to 50,000 satellites into orbit over the next few years, it is becoming increasingly important, yet more and more difficult, to be able to pinpoint these objects with accuracy. Furthermore, rising levels of potentially hazardous space debris have the potential to cause severe damage to satellites.

At the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre United Kingdom (ESA BIC UK), start-up company Lumi Space has been using ground-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technologies to develop a system that can accurately pinpoint small objects in low earth orbit. This could be a small satellite travelling through orbit at 17,000 mph, to the millions of pieces of space junk that could destroy it.

LIDAR technologies have widespread applications on Earth, from mapping the ocean floor to driving autonomous vehicles. At the ESA BIC UK Lumi space has been using the vast data that comes from this approach to develop a low cost way to spot, characterise and track objects in space with unprecedented precision.  The potential applications of this technology are significant, from monitoring traffic congestion in space and space debris as well as, one day, the potential for in-orbit servicing of satellites, refuelling and space tugs from one orbit to another. 

The ESA BIC UK is the world’s largest business incubation programme for space tech start-ups.  Managed and partly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, in collaboration with ESA Space Solutions and the UK Space Agency, it sets out to help small businesses develop game changing products and services for an increasingly competitive, global marketplace.

To date it has incubated nearly 100 start-up companies, and Lumi Space is the 75th company to have graduated from the programme.

Dr Hira Virdee, Director and founder of Lumi Space, said: “The satellite industry is booming, but the sheer number of satellites planned for launch in the coming decade pose a huge problem to our space traffic management. Coarse data is widely available from governments and other start-ups, but very precise data is difficult to obtain, and that’s our focus.  Joining the ESA BIC UK has been a critical phase in the development of Lumi Space, and has given us the fantastic opportunity to refine our technology to fill this gap. Now that we have demonstrated our technology in principle, we are looking forward to the next step, testing it in orbit.” 

Despite difficult economic times, companies that have joined the ESA BIC UK have a 92% success rate and, as part of the programme, benefit from funding, access to IP, technologies and expertise generated by ESA research, as well as to STFC's world class expertise and technical facilities, with dedicated business support.

STFC’s Dr Sue O’Hare, Operations Manager at the ESA BIC UK, said: “UK start-ups are increasingly using space technologies to create new products and services, whether that’s for use here on earth or for satellites in space. At STFC, via the ESA BIC UK, it is our mission to provide start-ups with the best environment possible to thrive and be successful. It has been a fantastic opportunity to support Lumi Space in the development of this cutting edge technology, that could bring significant benefits to the satellite industry globally, and I am looking forward to hearing about its future success.”

The ESA BIC UK is a UK-wide programme, incorporating the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, Sci-Tech Daresbury in the North West, the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and the new Space Park Leicester. Each location is firmly associated with world leading specialisms that companies joining the programme can benefit from.

Part of the ESA Space Solutions network of successful ESA BICs across Europe, the ESA BIC UK provides up to 15 start-ups every year with a combination of funding and access to world leading technical expertise, facilities and business development support. This is in addition to the benefits that being part of a flourishing and unique network of science and innovation campuses can bring.

Further information about the ESA BIC UK and how to apply is available online.

(1) Data provided by Beauhurst

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Last updated: 11 June 2021


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