Space debris: how to make activities in orbit sustainable

Like many factors exercising environmental stress on the Earth, space debris is growing at an exponential pace. Immediate action is required to mitigate the growing risk of collision and assure a sustainable use of Space – a common good – in the future. The GREEN SPECIES project by Professor Camilla Colombo of the Politecnico di Milano tries to tackle such issues. And for this project Colombo received a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

Space debris: how to make activities in orbit sustainable

GREEN SPECIES, “Robust control of the space debris population to define optimal policies and an economic revenue model for sustainable development of space activities”, will define an interdisciplinary approach for the modelling of space debris and the elaboration of estimates about its evolution. A probabilistic model of space debris taking into consideration all physical, economic and political variables will be developed.

The innovative aspect is that the project will incorporate the management of the debris by means of a robust controller applied to the space debris model, described as a complex dynamic system. The ideal feedback control actions will be converted into policies and guidelines through quantitative indicators, so as to evaluate both the environmental impact and the social and economic benefit of space missions in the journey to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

GREEN SPECIES will also propose a new economic model for the definition of a credit system for a sustainable space leveraging on global climate management approaches. The project will allow the creation of the Space Sustainability Lab for advanced modelling and control of the debris through high-performance computing and virtual reality.

GREEN SPECIES was selected among more than 2,200 proposals received by the ERC. If we consider that this year only 14.4% of the projects submitted have obtained funding this is a great result for the Politecnico di Milano.

So the Politecnico di Milano has now received a total of 60 ERC grants, 14 of which are Consolidator Grants. Within Horizon Europe, the European Union’s 2021-2027 framework project for research and innovation, the Politecnico has, to date, achieved the outstanding result of 126 winning projects, 17 of which with the ERC, for a total value of over 64 million euros. Currently the application success rate of the Politecnico is 20.45%, compared to about 15% at the European level. In terms of the number of funded projects, the Politecnico is fifth out of all universities in the European Union (Cordis data as of 16/01/2023).

ERC Consolidator Grants are intended for researchers with at least 7 years of experience since obtaining their PhD and with a very promising scientific profile. These are scholars who aim to consolidate their independence in research, strengthening their research group and continuing to develop a career in Europe. Funding can reach €2 million per single project, for a maximum duration of 5 years.

Other 3 researchers from the Politecnico have obtained funding for an ERC Proof of Concept (PoC), which aims to allow a progression of previously ERC-funded ideas from pioneering to applied research.

The objective of the team coordinated by Prof. Carlo Spartaco Casari is to develop a new printable anti-counterfeiting system (PYPAINT) based on carbon-based nano-structures with a specific optoelectronics answer, allowing the creation of a unique identifier code for an artwork, invisible to the human eye.

The project stems from the research activity at the NanoLab of the Energy Department of the Politecnico di Milano as part of the ERC Consolidator grant EspLORE project and is carried out in collaboration with the start-up DayOne. With PYPAINT, the research group wants to help safeguard the extreme value of artworks in Europe and the rest of the world.

The CATALYSEproject of Professor Matteo Maestriis centred around the development of a software for multi-scale modelling of industrial catalytic processes, combining rigorous adherence to core principles and advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. The software will provide a plug-and-play framework for the inclusion of detailed atomistic-level kinetics in advanced chemical reactor models, serving as a key tool to support the development of new technologies for energy transition and sustainable use of resources

Prof. Francesco Topputo obtained funding for his GUIDO project, which will lay the foundations for the realisation of an autonomous driving unit for satellites in deep space. Steering a satellite means planning and controlling its trajectory as well as deciding how to direct its thrusters during manoeuvres.

The innovative element of GUIDO is its ability to find trajectories with reliable optimization algorithms that can run on a low performance and low energy consumption circuit board. The GUIDO PoC will be developed at the DART Lab, the laboratory managed by Topputo where steering and navigation algorithms for space probes are tested through simulations with integrated hardware.

Politecnico di Milano is a scientific-technological university which trains engineers, architects and industrial designers.

The University has always focused on the quality and innovation of its teaching and research, developing a fruitful relationship with business and productive world by means of experimental research and technological transfer.

Research has always been linked to didactics and it is a priority commitment which has allowed Politecnico Milano to achieve high quality results at an international level as to join the university to the business world. Research constitutes a parallel path to that formed by cooperation and alliances with the industrial system.

Knowing the world in which you are going to work is a vital requirement for training students. By referring back to the needs of the industrial world and public administration, research is facilitated in following new paths and dealing with the need for constant and rapid innovation. The alliance with the industrial world, in many cases favored by Fondazione Politecnico and by consortiums to which Politecnico belong, allows the university to follow the vocation of the territories in which it operates and to be a stimulus for their development.

The challenge which is being met today projects this tradition which is strongly rooted in the territory beyond the borders of the country, in a relationship which is developing first of all at the European level with the objective of contributing to the creation of a single professional training market. Politecnico takes part in several research, sites and training projects collaborating with the most qualified European universities.

Politecnico’s contribution is increasingly being extended to other countries: from North America to Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. Today the drive to internationalization sees Politecnico Milano taking part into the European and world network of leading technical universities and it offers several courses beside many which are entirely taught in English.

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