Does space exploration have a sustainability problem? – BRINK – Conversations and insights into global affairs
As space exploration industry and governments continues to grow, not only is the number of satellites in orbit increasing, but also the amount of space junk or debris.
Every mission in space leaves a signature of debris. For example, small fragments of paint are released as a natural consequence of separation activities between a launch vehicle and its payload. Some debris incursions are unavoidable, but debris mitigation is quickly becoming a priority for regulators licensing commercial activities.
We have already witnessed the incursion of pollution in general into the Earth’s oceans. Now is the time to act so that space does not suffer the same fate and remains sustainable.
What is sustainability in space?
The proliferation of space debris, which has nearly doubled in the past 10 years (see Figure 1), is the equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. The Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California, are debris whirlpools bound by the massive North Pacific subtropical gyre.
Figure 1: The number of objects in all orbits has increased dramatically between 1960 and 2020
Sea pollution causes damage to marine life and the marine environment. For humans, this manifests itself in the food chain.
Space is different. The debris, which serves no function, is simply a hazard to another object destined to be in space. Orbital paths intersect, and launching new satellites into space is like crossing a three-lane road. There must be space in each lane to be able to cross safely. If the traffic increases significantly, crossing the road becomes difficult.
Simply put, too much debris would mean the end of access to space.
Why is space important?
The International Telecommunication Union describes space exploration as “the backbone of modern communication technologies”. Behind every phone call, Internet search, remote financial transaction and many other daily activities is space technology.
The presence of space debris may not cause large pieces of metal to fall from the sky. Yet it poses a significant threat to our daily lives. Information from satellites provides our transportation systems with global positioning, our banking systems with synchronization of transactions, and our aviation and maritime sectors with up-to-date and accurate positioning services. We rely heavily on satellites, and most of us interact with 20-30 satellites before we finish our morning coffee or send our first work email.
Further commercialization of space will bring even more benefits. There are a host of new applications, including environmental and crop monitoring, more accurate weather forecasting, and the manufacturing in space of industrial and pharmaceutical materials that cannot be made on Earth. These will bring enormous benefits to society.
What is being done to solve the debris problem?
Space agencies regulate the activities of commercial actors who operate from their given state. Recently, we have seen an increased focus on finding the best way to promote sustainability by mitigating risk, managing how space objects are handled, and disposing of debris.
Risk mitigation and management of existing objects in space
Ideally, operations should be conducted in such a way that the mission produces minimal debris and leaves little or no debris in space. Operators should be encouraged to commit to good corporate citizenship and to building their spacecraft in a way that reduces the debris signature during launch, operation, and at the end of mission life. A satellite’s ability to maneuver is an important consideration because it means it can avoid a collision. It also means the satellite can be moved to a safe graveyard orbit or deliberately de-orbited at the end of its life.
Keeping as much debris out of the space as possible may require coordination activity to avoid collisions using tracking and positioning equipment that can determine the precise location of objects. A number of commercial entities are now able to accurately pinpoint the position of objects as small as 1 millimeter in size. This level of precision will help operators avoid collisions, which would otherwise increase the amount of debris in space.
The process of active debris removal involves searching for known hazards, capturing them, and removing them from orbit so that they no longer pose a hazard to other spacecraft. A living spacecraft connects to a piece of vanished debris and then transports it to graveyard orbit. This type of mission is more suitable for activity in low Earth orbit. The debris is “dropped” into a very low orbit, causing it to enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up upon re-entry.
Alternatively, debris can be stored in space. In this scenario, debris is picked up and placed in a “safe” orbit to form a compact, managed debris cloud. Debris in the cloud can even be retained in garbage can-like structures in orbit. The debris can then be salvaged and the materials recycled to make new hardware in space. Although this may seem far-fetched and there are considerable legal challenges to overcome, it is a very real prospect.
The British Space Agency is one of the world’s leading space agencies in these areas: UK National Space Strategysets out a bold vision for the sector, recognizing the need to make space safe and sustainable.
The intersection of sustainability and financing
As we move towards greater commercial exploitation of space, with all the benefits that can bring, let’s not forget one of the most fundamental aspects: funding. The space sector has a new breed of entrepreneurs who are bringing new ideas that will benefit society in ways we never imagined. They are aware of their sustainability and environmental credentials and therefore expect more from their suppliers and partners and want the people they work with to share their values.
The priority given to sustainability is very present when it comes to accessing funding for space missions. Lenders and investors are now much more focused on environmental, social and governance issues when deciding whether or not to participate in projects. With ambitious sustainability goals, lenders and venture capitalists must demonstrate to their shareholders and investors that they are making sound ethical decisions.
Access to space is imperative in our daily lives, which highlights the importance of its protection. The good news is that those involved seem to pick up on the issue more quickly than we did for high seas protection.