Emerging Technologies

The path forward for sustainable space exploration

stock pic of the top silouhette of a planet in space

More than 30 space missions to the Moon are scheduled for this decade alone. Image: REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Pascale Ehrenfreund
President, Committee on Space Research (COSPAR)
Carissa Christensen
Chief Executive Officer, BryceTech
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  • Space exploration is in the midst of a transformative era marked by groundbreaking missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
  • Public and private space actors are revolutionizing the industry with cost-effective, reusable launch vehicles and ambitious missions.
  • Here's how we can ensure space activities are conducted in a way that safeguards the interests of future generations.

It is an extraordinary and exciting time for the space sector. We are also in the midst of a transformative era of space exploration, marked by groundbreaking missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Both governmental and commercial interests are driving significant advancements in technology and our understanding of the solar system. These public and private space actors are revolutionizing the industry with cost-effective, reusable launch vehicles and ambitious missions, making space more accessible and accelerating humanity's journey beyond Earth.

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Space exploration also encourages international cooperation and inspires future generations. There have never been so many space exploration missions venturing into our solar system.

In recent months, six missions have been launched to the Moon. India and Japan became the fourth and fifth nations, respectively, to achieve successful 'soft' lunar landings alongside a private mission.

China has recently returned the first-ever samples from the lunar “farside”. Additionally, more than 150 lunar and cislunar exploration missions are planned until 2033, supported by both government and commercial funding.

Sustainability challenges of space exploration

This surge in space activities also presents sustainability challenges that must be addressed to protect celestial bodies for both current and future generations. Immediate action is required.

Public and private entities worldwide are preparing for lunar and cislunar exploration missions in the coming decade.
Public and private entities worldwide are preparing for lunar and cislunar exploration missions in the coming decade. Image: Brycetech

The main goal of deep space exploration programmes is to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon, laying the groundwork for human Mars exploration. Key projects like NASA’s Artemis programme and the China/Russia-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) are spearheading lunar exploration.

Both alliances have published scientific objectives and guidelines to manage their respective exploration programs. The Artemis programme aims to return astronauts to the Moon, with milestones including the Artemis-2 crewed flyby mission in 2025 and the Artemis-3 crewed lunar landing in 2026.

Meanwhile, the ILRS initiative plans to land taikonauts and cosmonauts on the Moon after 2030, backed by cooperation agreements with several countries. The global and multi-stakeholder nature of these programmes necessitates a renewed focus on complex infrastructure across various technical fields, planetary environmental stewardship, and legal and collaborative frameworks.

The Outer Space Treaty serves as the foundational pillar for multilateral space governance. Enacted in 1967, the treaty constitutes an international agreement on the peaceful use and exploration of outer space, prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons in space and the sovereignty claims by any nation over celestial bodies.

The Moon Agreement of 1979 aims to govern the activities of states on the Moon, particularly concerning resource exploitation. However, although it represents binding international law for its 17 signatory parties, it has not yet been ratified by those countries most likely to lead missions that will focus on space resource activities in the coming years.

In 2019, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPOUS) adopted the ‘Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities’, which provide extensive guidance on policy, regulatory frameworks, safety, and international cooperation.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Artemis Accords are a non-binding set of principles designed to guide civil space exploration and use in the 21st century. Thus far, NASA and the space agencies of 43 countries have signed them.

Sustainability in space activities involves conducting them in an environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially responsible manner. As several countries have already outlined in their submissions to the UNCOPUOS Space Resources Working Group, key aspects include minimizing space debris, preventing contamination, and advancing technologies for responsible resource management.

Establishing international frameworks for cooperation and safety is essential, as well as considering the ethical and cultural aspects related to our expansion into deep space.

Engaging diverse stakeholders, listening to all relevant ‘voices’ including Indigenous ones and enhancing public awareness is critical to fostering sustainable and ethical practices in deep space exploration.

As space missions and infrastructure evolve, so must the regulatory frameworks that ensure responsible stewardship of celestial bodies, including resource utilization. The increasing concern around sustainability has led to multiple initiatives by space agencies, international space organizations and expert groups to draft guidelines and frameworks for responsible lunar and cislunar activities and effective space exploration governance.

In its 67th session, UNCOPUOS agreed to establish the Action Team on Lunar Activities Consultation. All state members were invited to contribute to its plan of work.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Space recognizes the urgency of addressing the lack of a comprehensive sustainability framework to govern space exploration activities that also adequately addresses the ethical, cultural and societal challenges.

Key recommendations for space exploration stakeholders

1. Build a comprehensive space-related environmental database: Develop a centralized and comprehensive database that collects, catalogues and provides a systematic assessment and detailed information on environmental impacts related to space activities. This database should be accessible to all the stakeholders conducting space activities, scientists, policy-makers and the general public to ensure transparency and foster evidence-informed decision-making. The database would be regularly updated with the latest research and mission data.

2. Align global space stakeholders: Engage all relevant stakeholders, including space agencies, private companies, researchers and the public, in discussions about the environmental impacts of space activities. Ensure their concerns and needs are addressed, and involve them in the decision-making process to create a more inclusive and effective governance framework.

3. Drive consensus-building on harmful contamination: Develop an all-encompassing system to clearly define and categorize "harmful contamination" in the context of space exploration. This includes biological, physical and chemical contamination that could affect celestial bodies and space environments. Establishing this consensus will require collaboration between international space agencies, scientists and regulatory bodies to agree on standards and thresholds for contamination.

4. Incorporate scientific research into policy: Establish a robust mechanism for ensuring that the most recent scientific discoveries and advancements in space research are incorporated into space exploration policies and regulations. This will help ensure that regulations are based on the best available evidence and can adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

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5. Enhance transparency, confidence-building and accountability: Advocate transparency in all aspects of space exploration and environmental stewardship by encouraging open access to data, research findings and mission details. This can build trust among stakeholders and the public and facilitate collaboration and accountability.

6. Coordinate regulatory mechanisms: Accommodate the reality of a polycentric governance approach, which involves multiple overlapping authorities and jurisdictions. Develop agile and responsive coordination mechanisms to facilitate international cooperation and collaboration in managing the environmental impacts of space exploration. This includes implementing consequence-based as well as context-specific rules that can adapt to changing circumstances and new information.

7. Conduct public awareness campaigns: Implement comprehensive public awareness campaigns to educate the public about the importance of environmental stewardship concerning deep space exploration and celestial bodies. Use various media and social platforms to reach a wide audience and raise public interest and support for sustainable space practices.

As we continue to explore the solar system and return to the Moon, it is crucial to do so with a strong sense of responsibility and towards a comprehensive governing system for operations.

We must ensure that our space activities safeguard the interests of future generations. This approach is vital not only for the success of our endeavors on our closest celestial neighbour but also for the broader exploration of the solar system in the long term.

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