This November we visited the Industry and Smallsats conferences at Space Tech Expo Europe 2021 in Bremen, Germany, where space sustainability was one of the key themes.
We learned a lot about agency advances, technological innovation, new launchers, on-orbit servicing, in-space infrastructure construction, and other themes. One of the panels discussed sustainable space technologies and we are happy to share an expert view on this pressing issue.
What is Space Sustainability?
Space debris and space traffic management continue to be two of the most important concerns confronting in-space operations today. The increasing number of objects in orbit increases the chance of collision and other possible risks both in space and on the ground. In addition to governmental steps to solve this issue, space technology businesses are developing pioneering breakthroughs to assist the sustainable use of space, such as deorbiting, lifespan extension, and in-orbit servicing. Incorporating these principles will not only promote a more sustainable environment but will also give business longevity in an ever-greening industry.
What do the Experts think?
As a huge concern is caused by large constellations, experts agree on the importance of the recently launched Net Zero Space initiative, aiming to achieve sustainable use of outer space by 2030. As examples of technologies to be used in order to achieve this, more attention should be paid to the development and application of mitigation technologies, including active debris removal, life extension of spacecraft, and in situ space situational awareness to monitor debris.
We are currently confronted with policy issues rather than a shortage of technologies. The above-mentioned innovations should be less expensive in order to be successful and widely used. Governments should take a policy action on this. Notably, the sector is more willing than ever to collaborate in the development of rules to assist advance the problem of space traffic management and space debris. On a fundamental level, we can observe that regulation adds value to the process: no one disputes traffic laws in order to avert tragedies on busy roads. Due to technical lag, it was difficult to implement sustainability, space traffic, and debris regulations in the past, but the present state of the art allows us to develop a balance between technology and policy while not overregulating this sensitive business.
The noteworthy point is that, under international space law, liability for any damage created in space would be borne by the government, not the operator. As a result, governments should instruct the industry on how to function in a responsible way, enacting additional duties to clean up the environment. Before policy and pricing for mitigation improve, more drastic measures can be imposed – states may refuse authorization for a new launch until the prior satellite is removed. At the same time, even if the policy comes before business, operators should be vocal about their requirements as well as their opinions on the industry’s future.
Responsibility of the Operators
Of course, much is dependent on the operators themselves. Companies should see economic revenue as sustainable, and governments should promote such profit. Today, sustainability is also important in marketing: space is more accessible to the general public, and people, particularly the younger generation, love enterprises that implement reusable or clean technology. Operators’ involvement would be to instil caution in the sector prior to the implementation of legislation. The role of space agencies here is to communicate hazards and teach how to be technologically, ecologically, and economically sustainable. It would be ideal to see the collaboration of organizations with similar ideas in order to make an effect collectively.
There is little question that the space business has seen substantial changes in the recent decade. Given that we now have the capability and knowledge to minimize debris, the goal is for commercial and public parties to learn to coexist in order to support regulatory and technical steps in embedding space sustainability.