Space debris is a growing problem. These leaders have a plan to tackle it

Satellite in orbit
With more space debris and active satellites than ever before, the risk of collisions is increasing.
Image: Unsplash/NIKON
  • Space-related technologies have allowed people in remote areas to access the internet, and have powered numerous innovations.
  • This and future progress is under threat because of orbital debris, human-made objects in orbit that no longer serve a useful function.
  • These pieces of debris travel several times faster than a bullet; a collision between them or with an active satellite could be devastating.
  • Leaders from the space industry have signed up to a set of recommendations for tackling this problem.

We benefit tremendously from space-related technologies and applications. If we want to ensure that these benefits continue while also encouraging a sustainable increase in existing activities, we must tackle an important challenge: orbital debris and potential collisions.

The number of active satellites in space continues to grow rapidly. This expansion has allowed people in remote areas to access the internet; it’s also powered tech innovations like connected cars. Thanks to improved and more numerous Earth observation satellites, we are also able to better monitor and understand our changing climate.

Orbital debris threatens this progress. Since these pieces of debris — of which there are approximately 1 million pieces 1 cm and larger — travel several times faster than a bullet, a collision between the debris or with active satellites could be devastating, destroying entire missions or creating large new debris fields. Today, close calls happen all too often.

So what can be done? While certain recommendations and guidelines exist, which some countries already adopt and enforce, more needs to be done.

This includes committing to certain behavioural norms and setting an example for the entire space community. It will also be important to ensure policymakers, investors and customers understand that the sector will need to be much more mindful and careful about operating in space. Specifically, this means adopting more ambitious and sustainable approaches with regard to a mission’s operations, such as how to perform and communicate debris avoidance manoeuvres with other missions nearby, and how to plan for end-of-life operations within certain safety levels.

That’s why the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, has published the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations. Following in-depth multistakeholder consultations, 27 industry actors from across the space sector have signed on to this document, which presents a vision for making space more sustainable. The document was launched at the Summit for Space Sustainability, organized by the Secure World Foundation.

The document sets ambitious goals, including specific percentages for post-mission disposal success rates, and a target number of years an object should remain in-orbit at the end of its life. As Kai-Uwe Schrogl, Special Advisor for Political Affairs at the European Space Agency, noted, these recommendations are an important step towards eliminating space debris: “ESA very much appreciates to team again with the World Economic Forum on preparing these recommendations, which are an important step for the space sector and which will effectively support the eventual goal of Zero Debris.”

The document is an updated and more detailed statement of a previous version. It calls for increased collaboration to reduce space debris; more transparency among operators; an acceleration of technologies and practices for the disposal of spacecraft at end-of-life; and the removal of existing space debris already in orbit.

The space sector brings tremendous benefits to all. We need to create a safe and sustainable operating environment if humankind is to continue reaping these benefits for generations to come.

To better understand the scale of the problem, and how it might be tackled, we spoke to industry leaders who have signed on to the recommendations. Here’s what they told us.

‘The global space-faring community needs to address the debris issue, before the orbital environment becomes unusable.’

Stephane Germain, CEO, GHGSat

“What GHGSat does in space improves the quality of life on Earth. But what we collectively do in space will determine whether we can sustainably provide such services from orbit.

“There is already 6,300 tonnes of debris in near-earth orbit, and by 2030 there could be 60,000 satellites flying in this zone. The global space-faring community needs to address the debris issue, before the orbital environment becomes unusable. That’s why we at GHGSat welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations.”

‘Protecting the space environment is of utmost importance to humanity’s short-term and long-term success.’

Will Marshall, CEO and Co-Founder, Planet

“Space debris is a serious issue, and we’re committed to acting as a responsible space actor and ensuring our satellites don’t contribute to it further. This is why we think the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations are an important step towards achieving long-term sustainability of the space environment.

“Protecting the space environment is of utmost importance to humanity’s short-term and long-term success, and is something we at Planet take very seriously when designing and operating our in-orbit fleet.”

‘Space is vital to daily life – from weather forecasting to global connectivity, and from climate change monitoring to navigation.’

Jean-Marc Nasr, Head of Space Systems, Airbus

“Airbus is working to ensure a sustainable space environment, as we believe we have a responsibility towards future generations to protect it.

“This commitment goes beyond our interest as a commercial organization generating revenues from space, and it is in all our interests to protect this natural resource, since space is vital to daily life – from weather forecasting to global connectivity, and from climate change monitoring to navigation.

“In a competitive global environment, Airbus calls for a level playing field where the highest standards of sustainability are applicable to all, for the good of all. It goes without saying that Airbus abides by the law and industry best practices, such as the safe removal of satellites and vehicles at the end of their operational life. But we are also pushing with the international community to go further. We are proud to be helping influence the international space agenda by supporting and promoting the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations.”

‘Space sustainability is vital … for creating a healthier and more connected planet.’

Chris Kemp, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Astra

“Astra takes great pride in continuing to work with the larger aerospace industry to reduce space debris. Maintaining space sustainability, particularly in low-earth orbit, is vital not only for our mission to improve life on earth from space, but for lowering the barriers of entry to space and creating a healthier and more connected planet.”

‘The recommendations are timely and driven by both business needs as well as global requirements for freedom of operations in space.’

Michael T. Suffredini, CEO, Axiom Space

“Axiom Space is proud to join with our colleagues in the space industry in the development and application of these standards to ensure a safe and sustainable environment for all space operators.

“As Axiom Space builds the world’s first commercial space station to be continuously crewed in low-earth orbit, it is critical that the operating environment be safe for the long-term development of an ecosystem of facilities to meet commercial, national and global priorities for microgravity research and technology development.

“ Axiom Space is determined to ensure that our capabilities meet the highest standards of safe operation in low-earth orbit and provide uninterrupted activities for our customers. The principles included in the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations are timely and driven by both business needs as well as global requirements for freedom of operations in space. We look forward to continued dialogue with policy-makers and others in the industry to continue to build a safer and more sustainable orbital environment for all of humanity.”

‘We must make it a priority to work with all actors, private and public, and across national boundaries, to implement rules of the road for sustainable behaviour in orbit.’

Dylan E. Taylor, Chairman & CEO, Voyager Space Holdings

“Space sustainability remains a considerable issue for in-orbit operations. Debris and potential collisions threaten many of the operating satellites as well as all future orbital missions. As more and more activity takes place in space, we must make it a priority to work with all actors, private and public, and across national boundaries, to implement rules of the road for sustainable behaviour in orbit, as well as for dealing with the existing debris already there.

“This is why we strongly support the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations, a multistakeholder effort led by the World Economic Forum and the European Space Agency. The recommendations are an important addition to existing approaches and send a strong message to the entire community about the need to be more ambitious vis-à-vis debris and collision mitigation strategies. We are proud to join a diverse group of space industry leaders and together set a new, high bar for sustainable behaviour in space.”

'Governments and the space industry are taking action on the dangers space debris poses to satellites, the digital backbone of modern life itself.'

Nobu Okada, Founder and CEO, Astroscale

“We are leaving behind the days of treating satellites and the rocket bodies that brought them to space as if they are disposable. The time of space sustainability — of building a smart logistics chain and a circular economy beyond Earth — has come.

“Around the world, governments and the space industry are taking action on the dangers space debris poses to satellites, the digital backbone of modern life itself, and they are realizing the immense opportunity posed by being able to inspect, refuel, repair, revive, relocate, remove, build, manufacture and recycle in orbit. Notably, the G7 itself has included space debris as a key area of global concern and needed action in the communique from its recent summit in Hiroshima.

“Astroscale was founded 10 years ago to address the critical issue of space sustainability. We are proud to be a leader across the technologies, policies and economics that will propel humanity into a safe, secure, and prosperous future in space, and we call on all space actors to take action for sustainability today.”

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