Sustainable space exploration: a necessary path towards scientific progress and environmental preservation. Image: Unsplash/NASA
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The impact of sustainable space exploration.
Waste and debris is not a problem limited to the earth – it is also mounting up in space. In 2021, the launch date of the James Webb Space Telescope had to be pushed back by two days to avoid it colliding with a piece of debris, showing just how disruptive detritus in space is.
Together with the European Space Agency, the MIT Media Lab and other partners, the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution has co-created and helped launch the world’s first sustainability rating for space missions. The Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) has been developed to reduce space debris and ensure that rapidly increasing space exploration missions launched worldwide are managed safely and sustainably.
The SSR, an initiative first conceived by the Forum’s Global Future Council on Space and developed over several years by international partners, looks to score space missions on their approach to debris mitigation, along with a series of other parameters.
The space industry does not have a universal agreement what sustainability in space would look like, or how to achieve it. This is something the SSR aims to change, by devising a rating system that organizations can voluntarily use to gain data-based assessments of their operations in space.
"As of today, there is no shared definition of what sustainable behaviour in space means globally, and quantifying, assessing and verifying international guidelines for space sustainability remains challenging."”
The initiative will reduce the risk of collisions and space debris generation as well as help ensure that missions launched into Earth orbit are sustainable. It is an important step in ensuring the world can continue to use and maintain the resources of space for generations to come.
"We are glad to support such an innovative approach to a global challenge of space debris. Incentivizing better behaviour by having actors compete on sustainability will create a race to the top."”
What’s the challenge to sustainable space missions?
With more satellites being launched each year, the risk of accidents and the creation of more space debris continues to rise. This has created the need for a global system to foster the long-term sustainability of the space environment.
In recent years, the $360 billion global space economy has experienced a transformation. Declining costs, satellite and launcher size evolutions and the proliferation of related technology have led to a surge in satellite launches, many by new space enterprises and nations. The Earth’s orbit is cluttered with over a million objects larger than 1cm, 4,000 of which are satellites. Some 60,000 more satellites are planned for the next decade. It is vital that a strategy is implemented to reduce future debris.
This transformation and rapid growth are anticipated to increase the space exploration sector’s vital role in telecommunications, remote sensing, space science and national security, making it a vital element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s infrastructure.
Our approach to ensure sustainable space exploration.
The Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) has been developed over the past two years by the World Economic Forum, European Space Agency, Space Enabled Research Group within the MIT Media Lab, BryceTech and University of Texas at Austin.
While satellites have long been used for navigation services, weather monitoring and television broadcasts, humankind’s reliance on space infrastructure is set to increase sharply with the launch of large constellations of small satellites designed to boost global internet access.
By voluntarily taking part in the new Space Sustainability Rating system, spacecraft operators, launch service providers and satellite manufacturers are able to secure one of four levels of certification, which they can share externally to show their mission’s level of sustainability.
This will increase transparency and approach to debris mitigation, without disclosing mission-sensitive or proprietary information.
The scores are based on factors ranging from 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. The characteristics of a launch provider will also have an impact on the score.
After a robust selection process involving close to 20 stakeholders, eSpace (EPFL Space Center) was selected to lead and operate the SSR. It began issuing sustainability certifications to mission operators in early 2022 and numerous operators within the space exploration industry have been engaged in the evolution of the rating system.
"With our experience and the partners that will support SSR, we intend to initiate in 2022 what could be a game changer in the way space missions are carried out."”
Several companies, including Airbus, Astroscale, AXA XL, Elseco, Lockheed Martin, Planet, SpaceX and Voyager Space Holdings, have actively supported the SSR concept and have expressed interest in participating.
"The SSR aims to influence behaviour by all spaceflight actors, especially commercial entities, and help bring into common usage the sustainable practices that we desperately require."”
How can you get involved?
The Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings together stakeholders from all sectors of society to create mobility systems – from aerospace and automotive, to travel and tourism, supply chains and transport – that meet worldwide demands, ensuring easy access to mobility for everyone.
Companies are invited to help shape the future of the space exploration environment by partnering with the Forum.
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