The satellite industry needs to unite behind standards on space sustainability and be part of efforts to create rules for sustainable space operations or risk the imposition of rules that are not technically feasible or commercially practical.
Space investments are at risk
The global space economy is large and growing, and this underlies the importance of sustainable space operations. According to the Satellite Industry Association’s July 2021 State of the Satellite Industry report, the global space economy generated $371 billion in revenues in 2020. Driving much of these revenues was a tripling of the number of operational satellites between 2010 and 2020.
The robustness of the global space economy is attracting record levels of investment. Venture Capital fund Space Capital reports that, in 2021, $46.4 billion was invested in the global space economy — a 50% increase compared with the investments made in 2020 — with space startups raising a record $15.4 billion in 2021, according to BryceTech. Space Capital reports that $258 billion in private capital has been invested in space companies in the last decade.
All investments, both space- and earth-based, are subject to risk. One risk receiving attention is the risk to spacecraft posed by orbital debris, including orbital debris created by testing anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles designed to destroy orbiting satellites, with tests reportedly conducted by China (2007), the U.S. (2008), India (2019) and Russia (2021). In fact, debris resulting from the 2021 Russian ASAT test is “a collision risk to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) spacecraft, especially spacecraft in sun-synchronous orbits (e.g., Earth-observing), very large spacecraft (notably, the International Space Station or ISS), and large constellations (for example, the Starlink constellation),” according to a recent unpublished scientific paper, “Russian ASAT Debris Cloud Evolution and Risk,” presented at the, 3rd IAA Conference on Space Situational Awareness (ICSSA).
Certainly, the April 18 commitment by the U.S. Government not to conduct ASAT missile testing is a positive step as is the government’s goal of establishing this as a new international norm.
The industry must work to establish norms
Governments, the European Union, international organizations such as the United Nations and private actors in the space industry are very much aware of the risk of space debris, and many are working to mitigate the risk. Just one example is the Space Safety Coalition’s efforts to secure widespread support for space sustainability best practices by taking a holistic approach to the distinct aspects of space sustainability. The Coalition is doing so by identifying problems and proposing solutions to a range of issues such as space situational awareness, sharing of data among governments and operators, space debris, spacecraft disposal and spacecraft design.
Unfortunately, the industry has so far been unable to unite behind a single set of best practices, but this is due to commercial, cultural and political interests, rather than technical disagreements. Even the efforts of the Space Safety Coalition have not garnered the endorsement of all major geostationary (GEO) and LEO companies, although its Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations have so far been endorsed by 57 companies, organizations, and other government and industry stakeholders.
Unless the industry unites behind a set of best practices that contributes to sustainable space operations, there is a real risk that governments will impose rules that are not technically feasible or commercially practical. In other words, if the industry is not at the table, it may soon be on the menu.
Of equal import is being at the right table. Two of the leading space sustainability initiatives are separately being led by the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Combining the efforts of both will create the right environment for industry to be at the table and contribute to the development of sustainable space operations that are both technically feasible and commercially practical.
David Meltzer is the secretary general of satellite trade association GVF. Previously, he was general counsel of the American Red Cross and Intelsat, among other positions. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of GVF members.