Prince Charles says safeguard space to mitigate 'mess' we are making of Earth

UK claims a leading role in removing the junk orbiting the planet

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Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has called on countries to sign up to an environmental management agreement for space after accusing the world "making a mess of this planet".

The Prince of Wales made the comment while visiting Astroscale in Oxfordshire, where new technology to capture defunct satellites for scrapping or repair is developed.

The UK plays a leading role in helping to clear space debris orbiting the Earth. The industry is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

Science Minister George Freeman joined Prince Charles at mission control of Astroscale's operations and announced the UK Space Agency was providing £1.7 million for 13 new projects to track and remove space debris.

Prince Charles speaks to the Head of Operations at Astroscale, Al Colebourn. PA

The visit put Prince Charles in a reflective mood.

"It just occurred [to me] while we're making rather a mess of this planet, that it might be useful to have an environmental management agreement for space," he said.

Mr Freeman was keen to focus on the commercial opportunities created by the "new space race" – the race to get junk down from space, not people into it.

"Astroscale is helping companies to make sure that when their satellites die they're removed and brought back down to Earth," he said.

"There's a huge commercial opportunity. As the sector evolves, everyone will be required to have satellite maintenance and servicing contracts to show they're not dumping rubbish in space, and I think the UK could be a world leader in setting the standards and therefore the insurance market."

Since the early days of space flight in the 1950s, debris has been building up around the planet and it is estimated 330 million pieces, from obsolete satellites to spent rocket bodies and much smaller objects, are orbiting Earth.

They pose a threat to the increasing number of satellites being launched each year which provide vital services, including communications and climate change monitoring.

Astroscale engineers paused their work during the royal visit to their base near Didcot to speak to Prince Charles.

Harriet Brettle, the company's head of business analysis, told him Astroscale aimed to commercialise its services by 2024.

"We're looking at providing services to satellite operators. If their satellites have failed in orbit we can be the AA [Automobile Association], the breakdown cover. They call us up and we can go and remove their satellite safely for them," she said.

"We're looking at capturing a big chunk of the multibillion dollar in-orbit servicing market by 2030."

Eradicating the 'launch and forget' culture

Astroscale said it has been testing the ability of its satellite capture technology since March 2021, and the next phase of trials will involve snagging real space debris.

John Auburn, Astroscale managing director, said a policy framework from governments was needed.

"There's a commercial market and government market, but to open the market we need the right policy so that industry takes it seriously.

"It's a sort of chicken-and-egg [situation], so if we can open the market we can create a whole new environment that's safe … so we go from a throwaway culture – launch and forget – to bringing down failed spacecraft."

Elon Musk's out-of-control SpaceX rocket, Falcon 9, is on a collision course with the moon and will inevitably spawn a plethora of space devbris when it crashes. Getty

Later, Prince Charles toured the UK Atomic Energy Authority's fusion experiment near Oxford, where work towards sustainable, low-carbon energy production is progressing at a time when gas prices are soaring.

During his visit to learn more about nuclear fusion – the power source of the Sun – he told Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UKAEA: "We've got to do this."

When nuclei are fused, a large amount of energy is released which a commercial power station could use to generate electricity, but there are huge scientific and engineering challenges to overcome.

"We agreed significant changes are needed to decarbonise the energy supply, and how fusion energy has huge potential to address that challenge," Prof Chapman said.

"The Prince of Wales was very keen to understand more about how fusion can be a critical piece of the future global energy puzzle and Britain's leadership position in overcoming the great scientific and engineering challenges set before us."

Updated: February 02, 2022, 12:07 PM