The exploration and utilisation of space have largely ignored the environmental consequences of space activities. Space scientists have been treating satellites as single-use items for a long time, leading to today’s sustainability crisis. In addition, space debris increases the risk of damage to all space vehicles, including the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Any piece of trash left behind by humans in space that originated on Earth is referred to as space waste. Space debris can range in size from the size of a car to that of a snowflake.
These days, the European Space Agency (ESA) says there are around 900,000 objects measuring between 1 and 10 cm in orbit and about 34,000 larger than 10 cm.
Space debris includes satellites, rockets (remains of stages used to propel missions in orbit), dropped tools, screws, cables, cameras, etc. It is estimated that there are more than 128 million fragments below 1 cm, most of which are undetectable, and around 900,000 range from the size of a marble to a tennis ball.
The present pace of growth in the space industry is unsustainable.
The environmental dangers of space debris are myriad, including light pollution that would hinder future scientific discovery. In addition, as the low-Earth orbits become more crowded, satellite operators are forced to assess conjunctions and perform debris-avoidance manoeuvres that consume valuable resources and disrupt operations. Due to this, the space economy faces enormous risks with increased costs.
The key to sustainability in space is to manage space debris. Everybody in the space industry is trying to become the top player in space research, but where do they stand on sustainability?
The sustainability issue in space cannot be resolved solely through technical means. National space policies and international standards supporting satellite servicing must be the driving forces behind the on-orbit servicing market. With the development of new activities in orbit, the population growth of satellites, and the pace of technological advancement, national regulatory policies are finding it challenging to keep up.
Space Sustainability Rating
Current and upcoming missions are at an increased risk of collision as the space debris problem is expected to worsen. The Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) will provide a new, innovative way of addressing the orbital challenge by encouraging responsible behaviour in space. It will improve the transparency of their contributions to safeguarding the environment in space as well as promoting and honouring responsible behaviour.
A mission’s sustainability in terms of debris mitigation and compliance with international standards will be represented by a score from the SSR. Organisations will submit questionnaire responses containing information about their missions, which will then be combined with information from outside sources to create a rating for the mission.
By voluntarily participating in the rating, satellite manufacturers, launch service providers, and operators of spacecraft will have a single external point of reference for describing the sustainability of their missions. This will help in maintaining sustainable practices in the space industry.
Why care about sustainability in space?
All human beings may be unable to use space if it is not safe, secure, and peaceful. Without the space environment, we would be unable to conduct scientific research, observe the Earth, use telecommunications, navigate, or use the space environment for other purposes. As a result, human spaceflight in Earth’s orbit may end.
A lack of sustainability would make it impossible for nations to utilise space productively. By addressing the issue of space sustainability now, we can stop harmful patterns from becoming the norm and ensure that all countries, not just those with advanced technology, can utilise space.