Sustainability in space is pressed with two main challenges: the unsafe de-orbiting of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and the prevalence of space debris. This ABI Insight explores the role of international governance in combating these concerns.
Mega Constellations Bring Mega Problems to Sustainability in Space
While sustainability garners plenty of attention here on Earth, like for cities and for mobility, the same cannot be said about space. Of all the developments in satellite communications, there is one that should alarm everyone—mega constellations. SpaceX has plans to release as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites, while OneWeb is planning on 648 satellites for its constellation. At the same time, GalaxySpace, a Chinese startup for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, has plans to launch 144 satellites in the future. There will only be more satellites launching into space as the space race heats up.
These numerous launches are creating problems for low orbit space both in terms of usability and sustainability. In this current phase, there are no agreed-upon best practices or international regulations governing the use of space, exacerbating the issues of LEO space usage. Without any forms of agreement on the use and management of traffic and space junk, there will be nothing stopping nations and private interests from taking advantage of LEO space and using it as they like.
How Is Sustainability in Space Being Challenged?
As the space race heats up, more satellites and space flights can be expected, which presents greater challenges for sustainable space. The chances of unmanaged de-orbiting objects creating significant negative impacts on Earth will increase exponentially with more objects entering LEO space. While no one was hurt as a result of the recent uncontrolled descent of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket body into the Indian Ocean and SpaceX’s capsule crash landing in Australian farmland, we cannot rule out the possibility of such incidents happening in the future. There are many parts of a rocket that can fall back to Earth, especially for payload going into LEO, and there are many more parts that stay in orbit.
Compounding the problem further is that the amount of space debris in LEO is expected to increase exponentially. The LEO space around Earth is littered with roughly 9,000 metric tons of debris, including abandoned satellites and other remains from disintegrating spacecraft, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). With more satellites, the chance of collision only increases without the proper management of space objects and traffic. Collisions in space could make objects become untraceable, thereby endangering future satellites and space flights. In addition, anti-satellite weapons testing further complicates the collision and space debris problems. For example, a recent test conducted by Russia had the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) adopting emergency measures due to the risk of collision from the debris cloud created, even though the ISS is equipped with Whipple Shields (a form of a barrier to protect satellites and spacecraft from high-velocity impacts). International efforts must be made to establish a framework to manage current and future objects in LEO space to avoid a scenario known as Kessler Syndrome, which is a phenomenon when the amount of space debris in LEO reaches a point at which further debris will continually be generated at an exponential rate due to a cascade of collisions.
International Governance Rudiments for the Future of Space
The space industry needs to address the challenges highlighted above for the sake of its own future. The environmental dangers and impact of space debris are numerous, including light pollution hindering future scientific astronomical discoveries and hazardous amounts of pollutants, such as alumina (among others), deposited in the upper atmosphere. For the satellite communications industry to continue developing in a sustainable manner, it must solve its litter issues and that starts with international governance.
First and foremost, there need to be agreed upon norms and governance for the use of space for long-term development. Unlike Earth, space has no national boundaries, so internationally agreed-upon norms that set the stage for governments and parties entering and using space are crucial. This will be the foundation for human usage of space, similar to international regulations, such as the Charter of the United Nations, which governs interactions between international parties of interest. Governance will also help provide safeguards for the betterment of society in the use of space. For example, higher-value space programs that have a global impact should be prioritized. In the short term, this might be challenging given the international geopolitical situation, but in the future after tensions have resolved, there can be global efforts to collaborate and draft suitable governing regulations for LEO space and beyond.
Second, one might wonder why international governance is required if companies like Astroscale can clean up the mess. If the amount of space debris predicted by Kessler Syndrome becomes a reality, this would be far beyond the scope of what Astroscale can handle. Companies, such as Astroscale, are the next step to enabling the future development of the space economy and ensuring the future usability of space by regularly clearing up debris, similar to how we have waste management systems on Earth. While international governance resolves interactions and norms between users of space, there is still a lot of debris floating around now to clean up to make space more usable.
Third, there needs to be more research done—both private and public—into safer and more sustainable ways to handle decommissioning satellites and the management of space debris. A first step would be to build even better collaboration and communication between national space agencies and private LEO companies. This can help drive better investments, improve the allocation of resources, and avoid duplication of research efforts. Additionally, open communication between all parties is fundamental to ensure avoiding any unintended collisions in space.
Further Out into the Future
Sustainability in space should be a global common concern as much as protecting the environments on Earth is. Establishing best practices for space, including sustainable practices, can improve the anticipated development and expansion of the space economy. The space services market is expected to see increased growth with more companies like Astroscale emerging in the future. Aside from active debris clearing, Research and Development (R&D) into functions like traffic management, advanced object tracking, Operations & Maintenance (O&M) for space shuttles and satellites, robotics, and other enabling products and services is necessary to progress the economy in LEO space. The possibilities are huge and endless, but for many interested parties, the need remains to help both industries and governments establish the best practices required to facilitate and govern the usage of space.
Satellites have provided us with many benefits since their inception, including the Global Positioning System (GPS), a better understanding of our climate, and connectivity for remote areas. Therefore, it is important that we do not take satellites and space for granted. Establishing space sustainability is rudimentary, and we should learn from our lessons here on Earth and not let history repeat itself in space. Sustainability development requires collaboration, a willingness to work with other nations, and international governance, as much in space as it does here on Earth.