Space sustainability: navigating challenges for a viable future

Space launch operator working at a computer.

A fast-growing sector

Activity in the space sector is booming. According to data from the Space Foundation, the global space industry was worth US$546 billion in mid-2023, with about 78% of that representing commercial revenue. The number of countries investing in space rose from just a few in 1960, to 70 countries in 2022. As an indicator of the continually growing interest and opportunities associated with space, investment bank UBS has, for example, estimated that space tourism will be valued at US$4 billion in 2030.

Why space sustainability matters

Thousands of satellites are currently in low earth orbit, and this number is reportedly expected to surge to around 60-100,000 within the next decade. This presents a significant sustainability issue for ongoing and future space exploration, with millions of pieces of debris in space ranging from 1mm to larger than 10cm.

As a result, the space industry is under increasing scrutiny, particularly considering the growing number of space actors and space objects and the trend towards the miniaturisation of satellite technology. Growing congestion of objects in orbit, including objects without manoeuvrability, the risk of collisions and the Kessler syndrome effect1 all pose a hazard to our safe and ongoing access to, and use of, outer space. With many aspects of modern daily life now reliant on space and its utilisation – including Earth observation, positioning, disaster management, and communications – these risks raise significant political, legal, scientific, economic and humanitarian concerns.

Space activities are conducted by an array of national and international space actors across governmental, intergovernmental, commercial, research and other institutions, underpinned by a complex web of governance. Ensuring sustainable space practices is crucial for the long-term viability of space operations, and calls for pragmatic solutions.

What does sustainable practice in space look like?

Sustainable practice in space includes the mitigation of space debris and management of on-orbit activities, such as safeguarding against cyber threats. The proliferation of space debris poses significant risks to operational satellites and other assets, compounded by potential liability, national security, and other concerns.

As a consequence, some regulators are working to implement measures aimed at promoting sustainability in space operations. These efforts include regulations from the US Federal Communications Commission and the European Space Agency mandating the deorbiting of certain satellites within five years post-mission to reduce space debris accumulation, which is a significant departure from the long-standing guidelines that satellites should be deorbited 25 years post-mission.

What are the challenges?

Regulators and policymakers are constantly balancing the need to meet international obligations and standards while developing frameworks that encourage economic development and competitiveness. This can be challenging, such as when regulators significantly outpace other regulators by setting higher sustainability or other benchmarks for industry to follow, leading some space actors to consider "forum shopping", i.e. conducting their business in a jurisdiction with less stringent requirements.

There is also the issue of fairness. For example, various regulators have grappled with whether to mandate propulsive capability on satellites to enable deorbiting and collision avoidance manoeuvres. It has been argued that enforcing these standards on a wide scale could impede the development of new space companies, as well as new jurisdictions to space activities that may not have had the capability to test their space projects in orbit without these requirements.

Against this background, the regulatory landscape also often struggles to keep pace with technological advancements. While space law can and does evolve to address sustainability concerns, there is a growing recognition of the need for more urgent action.

Progressing sustainability in the space sector

The space industry is, of course, increasingly aware of the importance of sustainable practices and some space actors are taking proactive measures to integrate sustainability considerations into project planning and execution. In the absence of mandatory regulations in some areas, such as minimum cyber security requirements for satellites with propulsive capabilities, industry stakeholders can continue to drive sustainability forward by adopting a proactive approach. Moving forward, by considering sustainability factors from the outset of projects and integrating them into supply chains, technical design details, and business practices, stakeholders can continue to demonstrate their commitment to responsible space operations. Given the complexity of operating a space business, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

What are deemed to be "sustainable" operations in space will likely continue to evolve and will depend on several factors. Establishing industry norms that prioritise sustainability across projects is essential. This involves considering sustainability at every phase of a project's lifecycle and developing evolving best practices. Additionally, striking a balance between regulatory frameworks that promote sustainability and encourage innovation and accessibility to new entrants in the space industry is a challenging but critical endeavour.

Ultimately, making space operations sustainable will require a collaborative effort between industry stakeholders, policymakers, and regulators. By prioritising sustainability, fostering a culture of responsible decision-making, and advocating for policies that support sustainable practices, we can navigate the complexities of space law and promote the long-term viability of our space activities and access to space for future generations.

This article is adapted from a presentation by Joann Yap at the National Space Industry Hub on 20 March 2024.

1 The Kessler effect is a hypothesis that sustained growth in space debris in low earth orbit will ultimately set off a cascade effect in which the debris will constantly collide, break up and multiply - posing significant dangers for space traffic.

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