This year, the UK launched a series of space sustainability measures to ingrain sustainable practices in the country’s space sector. Dubbed “The Plan for Space Sustainability”, which is now a part of the UK’s overarching strategy to become a significant player in the global space industry.
Some regulations include making licences, insurance and other costs less expensive for environmentally conscious space companies, with harsher business conditions potentially on the cards for unsustainable businesses.
Although enhanced regulation could limit the growth hoped for in the UK space sector, it comes at a time when the LEO spacecraft population is rising exponentially, and the scattering of space debris creates operational challenges for the space industry.
George Freeman, the UK’s Minister for Science, said that the measures aim to rein in the “wild west space race” and will develop a Space Sustainability Standard. He is committing to working internationally on space sustainability within organisations such as the UN, G7 and the global space industry.
Although we welcome any initiatives like this, it is so essential to the success of a global space sustainability standard for there to be international cooperation. This article will outline why international inclusion in the space industry is vital to its longevity and how we could achieve this.
The Major Players
If we look at the make-up of satellite distribution by operating country, it becomes clear that a few select nations control the majority of spacecraft. These include the United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom. They dominate the space industry and orbital environment, and these countries benefit immensely from the resources they have put toward establishing a solid presence in space.
The knock-on effect is that most space debris comes from defunct or destroyed satellites from these nations due to a lack of deorbiting and ASAT testing. The challenge that the UK or any other major space player will have when trying to create an international system of space sustainability is that the reason for current concerns is a product of themselves.
The UK, US, Russia and China have decades of research and development to make their space practices more sustainable. More small and developing nations have not had this luxury. If the significant space industry players carry on deploying spacecraft at the current rates and then start penalising emerging space powers due to unsustainable practices, there will inevitably be some objection to this.
The Concerns of Emerging Space Powers
As sustainability and inclusion increasingly become topics of international discussion, more minor powers are beginning to voice their concerns about the orbital landscape and their ability to access it. In UN debates, Indonesia has said that the international space agenda should aim to narrow gaps between space-faring and emerging space nations.
We should use legal frameworks to strengthen international cooperation and develop inclusivity. There needs to be collaborative efforts to build capacity and transfer technology between nations, especially considering where emerging countries are in their plans for space.
The African Union has decided to establish an African Space Agency headquartered in Egypt because Africa has one of the highest demands for space products and services. The continent is becoming increasingly dependent on space-based communications, disaster management and climate change monitoring, which will be vital in confronting poverty, inequality and unemployment.
To further the development of the African continent using space technologies, the orbital environment needs to be distributed equitably and consider that capabilities would provide disproportionately more significant benefits to the populations of some nations.
The Only Way is Global
The problem with space sustainability and debris, in particular, is that it will only be rectified if it is a global solution. Without universal agreements, space companies will be incentivised to launch or manufacture in countries with smaller regulatory burdens and costs. This could not only lead to an unsustainable orbital environment but the concentration of the space industry in the hands of a few select nations.
Unfortunately, international treaties take time. The Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines, not a treaty, just guidelines, took nearly ten years of constant negotiation within the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space.
A tangible solution will require resources and a schedule, and we need to be realistic about how difficult it will be to achieve. That doesn’t mean we can’t be ambitious; the security of the planet’s orbit depends on it, but it will require a consultative approach with the input of all countries and populations worldwide.
The Future of the Space Industry
If we are talking about the longevity of the space industry, we cannot ignore the hot topics that dominate discussions globally—namely, Space Debris and Global Warming. Space surveillance networks actively monitor more than 30,000 pieces of Space Debris. These pieces can travel at speeds of around 7-8 km/s and cause fatal damage to active spacecraft and other debris. ESA models estimate that the number of objects larger than 1cm throughout our orbits is likely over 1 million.
As it stands, spacecraft operators can use collision avoidance techniques to preserve their satellites. However, with the number of launches skyrocketing (pun intended), the orbital environment will become increasingly crowded.
While debris mitigation guidelines include the 25-year deorbit rule in LEO, the ESA estimates that less than 60% of those flying in LEO adhere to the guidelines. There have been several intentional generations of debris in the form of anti-satellite testing, which creates enormous amounts of dangerous objects travelling up to 10 times the speed of a bullet.
There is an incentive for space companies to use space sustainably, and many LEO operators follow the guidelines. Still, without universal buy-in, the orbital environment will become more and more polluted until we reach the point of Kessler Syndrome. If we end up there, it could be catastrophic for weather and disaster monitoring and our ability to analyse and combat the effects of global warming.
It’s all well and good for the UK to come forward with these space sustainability initiatives but what needs to exist for our orbits to be protected and utilised in the right way is a cohesive global strategy to get there. It has to involve the entire space industry, including the outlying but massive space powers in China and Russia, and be acceptable to countries with more minor, emerging and non-existent space industries going forward.< back to other articles