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Keeping Space Sustainable: An Update

Contributed Content – Edited for Length and Clarity

As space technology continues to develop at pace, we see more satellites being launched than ever before. Used for communication, navigation, earth observation and scientific development, these satellites provide valuable services and insights for the everyday functioning of society.

According to ESA data, in early July there were 7,510 satellites currently in Earth orbit, of which some 4,500 are actually functioning – so 40% are redundant – a striking proportion that no longer serve a purpose, but become ‘space junk.’

Catastrophic Consequences

The ramifications of collisions in space can be extremely dangerous. In 2009, a Russian military satellite and a privately-owned American satellite collided, resulting in the destruction of both objects and the creation of 2,300 fragments of space debris.

Space debris in itself is one of the most pressing issues in space activities today, and the volume is rapidly growing. Data suggests that the number of debris in orbit is around:

  • 34,000 objects greater than 10cm;
  • 900,000 objects between 1-10cm;
  • 128 million objects between 1-10mm.

Although the size of these objects may not seem significant, in the context of a collision with a spacecraft, a 1mm object has the potential to destroy a subsystem it comes into contact with, while a 10cm object could completely fragment a standard satellite.

Clearly, the risk posed by space debris carries the potential for catastrophic consequences – a risk that is only going to increase in parallel with the increased number of satellites being launched.

Not Just in Space

What happens in space does not necessarily stay in space. In May 2021, we were reminded of the dangers on Earth, when debris from the Chinese Long March-5b rocket crashed into the Indian Ocean. Had this happened in a populated area, the consequences would no doubt have been far more severe.

An Action Imperative

This is not an issue to be ignored: governments and industry are starting to take serious action in order to control the problem. Companies such as Astroscale and D-orbit are creating innovative solutions for the safe removal of space debris.

Alongside the ramping up of commercial activities, authorities are starting to implement procedures to ensure the sustainable use of Earth’s orbit. The World Economic Forum has recently announced the implementation of a Space Sustainability Rating (SSR). This will come into force in early 2022, and has been developed in order to reduce the volume of space debris and encourage space organisations to implement safer, more sustainable mission management. This will be achieved by providing for their operations and activities (including satellite launches and crewed missions) to attain certification for sustainability, scored on criteria including “data sharing, choice of orbit, measures taken to avoid collisions, plans to de-orbit satellites on completion of missions, and even how well they can be detected and identified from Earth.”

This is just one approach which promises to provide further guidance and encouragement for sustainable practices in the industry. Other activities, such as those carried out by ESA’s Clear Space Office, as well as calls to action from the UN Office for Outer Space Activities, show additional progress being made at all levels.

Towards a Safer Future

The use of space will continue to grow – an inevitability due to the inherent advantages so created. It will improve the way we communicate, the way we protect our environment, even the way that we strengthen our economies.

However, in order to continue providing these benefits, it is important that space organisations and governments alike begin to enforce more stringent approaches to how they act. Given the increased focus by all industry stakeholders in creating more sustainable practices, the outlook certainly looks very positive for the future of space.

Keen to learn more on these subjects? Come and join representatives from ESA, D-Orbit, Astroscale and more leaders in the field at the Space Tech Expo Europe 2021 Conference. Register for free today.

[Author Nadia Steggell is the Conference Producer for Space Tech Expo Europe, taking place in Bremen on 16-18 November. This year’s conference agenda has been carefully researched and developed around the most pressing topics in the European and wider space industry. The Industry and Smallsats conferences address key themes, including Investment, Space Exploration, Digitalisation, Launch and Propulsion, Earth Observation and Sustainability, bringing these topics to life with high-ranking speakers from all branches of the industry. Access the full agenda here.]

The free-to-attend exhibition and conference offers the very best in space-related information, analysis and networking opportunities. (Image courtesy Space Tech Expo Europe)

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