Space has been the ultimate frontier until manned spaceflights ventured to the unknown. Today, nearly 5 thousand satellites orbit around the Earth and commercial space tourism is gaining tract. Yet, the notion of sustainability in space is also present in the public debate, with industry and governments working on solutions to address issues like space debris. Throughout 2021, an estimated $92 billion was invested in the space sector.
1. World Space Week
In 1999, the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Space Week with the main aim to celebrate the contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition. Today, the discussion has evolved into how to tackle space debris while reaping the benefits of space technology. On the occasion of the ongoing World Space Week, sustainability is at the center of the agenda with panelists making the case for how space exploration can help sustainable development back on Earth and how to ensure space travel is safe and sustainable.
2. Space debris
Cleaning up space debris ought to be a joint responsibility of every spacefaring nation in the interests of all humankind. According to NASA, more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are currently tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. The US space agency says there’s much more debris in the near-Earth space environment, yet too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions. If large collisions of space debris occur, these could result in certain orbits becoming unusable for decades to come.
Running the same surveillance mechanisms, the European Space Agency (ESA) says it has spotted more than 30,000 space debris so far this year. ESA says most, but not all, rocket bodies launched today are safely placed in compliant disposal orbits or removed from low-Earth orbit (LEO) before they can fragment into clouds of dangerous debris. But active satellites today still have to dodge out of the way of objects that were launched decades ago and have since broken into fragments.
To address the challenge, the EU launched an approach for space traffic management to cover both, operational and regulatory needs and to pursue the necessary international cooperation, notably with the US. Despite the alliance, Europe says it wants “to reduce dependence on the American system”, while ensuring interoperability.
If we don’t significantly change the way we use launch, fly and dispose of space objects, an “extrapolation” of our current behaviour into the future shows how the number of catastrophic in-space collisions could rise.European Space Agency
Recently, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules designed to tackle the growing problem of space debris. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said she wants to reduce the length of time that LEO satellites spend floating around in space after the end of their mission from 25 years to no longer than five.
“Since 1957 humanity has put thousands of satellites into the sky, often with the understanding that they were cheaper to abandon than take out of orbit. These satellites can stay in orbit for decades, careening around our increasingly crowded skies as space junk and raising the risk of collisions that can ruin satellites we count on,” said Rosenworcel.
According to EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, it is expected that in the next years, more than 30,000 additional satellites will be launched.
“The EU already has surveillance and tracking capability, thanks to the capabilities made available by the member states within the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking consortium. We monitor nearly 240 satellites in real time, including Galileo and Copernicus, in order to protect them against any risk of collision,” said Breton.
3. Industry’s statement
Last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) convened industry leaders to issue a joint position through the Space Industry Debris Statement, which called for increased collaboration to reduce space debris, more transparency among operators, an acceleration of the development of technologies and practices for the disposal of spacecraft at end-of-life, and for removal of existing space debris already in orbit. An updated statement is expected in the coming months.
When asked about what his space company is doing to tackle space debris, CEO and Founder Nobu Okada said Astroscale is contributing to the development of a space ecosystem with “affordable on-orbit services, such as active space debris removal, life extension, refueling, orbital transfers, in-space manufacturing, and end-of-life management”. Okada said they transform the usage of the orbital environment from a waste culture to a sustainable ecosystem but it’s urgent to advance technologies, policies, and economics that support spaceflight safety and long-term space sustainability.
Lockheed Martin’s EVP Rick Ambrose said the company developed several capabilities for this dynamic environment: “With robust precision and navigation systems embedded in our satellites, advanced software radar systems like Space Fence detecting objects as small as a marble in LEO, and the iSpace software platform cataloging objects and space debris, we are equipping our customers with greater situational awareness and the tools to act.”