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Space Sustainability for the Next Century

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In the third edition of the Emerging Technology for Space webinar series, hosted by Satellite Applications Catapult and the University of Glasgow, we covered the topic of Space Sustainability for the Next Century. This webinar brought together experts from both academia and industry, to explore some of the latest research on this topic and discuss some of the opportunities and challenges on these concepts.

Society is becoming increasingly reliant on satellite technologies and services for everyday activities, access to Space is essential to many emerging markets and to further Space exploration. Loss of Space-based services or access to Space could have significant, detrimental societal and economic impacts. Therefore, governments, institutions, and the private sector must act collectively keep pace with new technologies and capabilities to ensure that Space remains safe and sustainable.

Challenges related to the sustainability of Space include technologies for active debris removal and designing satellites for demise, existing and future regulations and how they can deliver long-term sustainability for satellites orbiting Earth and other celestial bodies, and the broader impacts that major and cascading events may have on the economy.

Applications of Space Sustainability

The first session began with a talk from Maurizio Vanotti, OneWeb, on the responsible use of Space. OneWeb’s first generation constellation will have 648 satellites in orbit, hence they are among the first companies in the world facing the challenges of operating mega-constellations and ensuring they use Space responsibly. Maurizio covered five important aspects of how they are ensuring a responsible and sustainable use of Space, covering: Space situational awareness (SSA) – ensuring orbits do not overlap; Space traffic management (STM) – ensuring they have clear coordination with operators; active debris removal (ADR) – engaging with multiple service providers in this uncharted territory; electromagnetic interference – avoiding use of certain RF bands, whilst observing and modelling the reflected brightness of their satellites for future design optimisation; carbon footprint – evaluating their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and introducing guidelines for their supply chain.

Next, Professor Massimiliano Vasile, University of Strathclyde, introduced three main topics on Space safety and sustainability and highlighted key research. Prof. Vasile introduced the Space sustainability paradox: the more we use Space to ensure we are sustainable on Earth, the more we become less sustainable in Space, and an analogy between the way we dump waste in Space to the way we dump waste on Earth – highlighting that we must learn from our mistakes on Earth and to not replicate this in Space. Prof. Vasile leads the STARDUST network, tackling problems in Space safety and sustainability. One solution is the CASSANDRA tool to model the complexity of what is in Space, and the FOSTRAD tool, providing automated analysis on Space traffic and conjunction between objects. Finally, Prof. Vasile demonstrated their developments of a Space sustainability rating, to capture the essence of lifecycle sustainability into a single quantifiable number.

Victoria Irwin, SSTL, discussed Space sustainability technologies, emphasising that the industry has an obligation to consider the safe and sustainable use of Space; the UK has been playing a significant role in leading this initiative, with an impressive history, and academia and industry are willing to work together on this issue which is very positive. In 2014, SSTL’s TechDemoSat-1 demonstrated one of the first de-orbit sails after being stowed for 5 years before deployment. Furthermore, SSTL were part of the RemoveDEBRIS mission which demonstrated several debris removal technologies, including net capture, harpoon and target assembly, and visual-based navigation. However, safe use of Space is not just about removing debris, we must understand and manage the whole environment, including Space weather, SSA, in-orbit servicing, ADR, regulation, and policy.

The fourth talk involved Professor Marc Ventresca, University of Oxford, covering the regulatory and governance perspectives of Space sustainability. Referencing Eleanor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning work, Prof. Ventresca questioned whether Space was a candidate for tragedy of the commons, and if so, then what? With recent dramatic changes in commercial Space activity and a renewed interest in national Space agencies there is a focus on “Space for Earth”, to address sustainable development goals. However, individual actors have no near-term incentives to not overuse resources in Space. There are several candidate solutions, one is for formally independent centres of authority interact with stakeholders. They can enforce norms, sanctions, and conceptual tools, but the challenge is how to extend onto global commons and how do we build these institutions?

Panel Discussion Summary:

  • Space isn’t starting from afresh, so we need to learn from the past and other sectors how can we bring people together to facilitate the necessary discussions, convene regularly, and build up capabilities.
  • There is a need to experiment with various ADR technologies to develop best solutions, but we must recognise this adds more into Space and this needs to be monitored.
  • Using an analogy to cars, which are semi-standardised and allows many servicing organisations, the Space sector has a challenge to foster modularity, standard interfaces, and allow new services to be provided.
  • SSA is only one part of the solution for the Space industry – we need actions as well as the monitoring.
  • We have lots of data, but their quality is variable and not all transparently available or accurate, so we need a leap forward to have a civil service for data on objects in Space.
  • There is a need for regulation in the Space sector.
  • We need to continue collaboration and education widely in our society, to ensure as many people are involved in the discussion and collaboration on Space sustainability.
  • Ultimately, we have obligation to look at Space as whole environment and to make/keep it safe.

Pitches on Space Sustainability

NORSS: has a vision to be the best end-to-end SSA/Space domain analysis (SDA) service provider, founded in 2017, they are developing local infrastructure and skills, by offering apprenticeships. They highlighted that too much information hides behind a barrier to entry and we need to ensure that Space is accessible for everybody.

Astroscale: involved in wide array of programmes: ELSA-d – world first commercial ADR demo, ADRAS-J to rendezvous and remove an upper stage. Moving forward ELSA-M will be a multi-client end-of-life disposal service. Astroscale also co-founded the in-orbit services and manufacturing (IOSM) working group with UK Space and are working on UKSA study for UK-led ADR mission and next-generation docking plates to commercialise IOSM interfaces.

GNOSIS: highted the importance of collaboration. The GNOSIS network is STFC-funded to tackle multidisciplinary Space safe and sustainability challenges, for which they have a published list of hard problems that need to be solved. The GNOSIS network has funding to support part-funded PhDs and proof-of-concept studies, and hosts workshops, sandpits, and an annual conference.

Prof. Andrew Lawrence: astronomers were alarmed when stripes started to appear in images taken from ground-based telescopes. It is encouraging that OneWeb and SpaceX have entered dialogue with astronomers, but the speed of change is worrying. There is a need for frameworks and standards for all stakeholders, but this will likely take years to implement, so we need to address issues now and ensure responsible behaviour in Space.

Skyrora: Ecosene takes unrecyclable plastics and gives them a second life for various fuel types: rocket, aviation, petrol/diesel. This capability builds on existing pyrolysis techniques with their unique catalyst and hydrotreating capabilities. The current plant is small, with a capacity for 3000 kg of waste per day, but this capability has seen them win awards and they are seeking to grow.

Summary

The webinar was a success. A question to take away is: what does ‘sustainable Space’ look like and what are we aiming for? Is it co-existence of all parties in Space? Thank you to everyone that joined us and engaged with the speakers, and we look forward to hosting more webinars soon. If you would like to suggest a topic for the next Emerging Technologies for Space webinar, then please get in touch with us.

The previous session in our Emerging Technologies for Space Webinar series was focused on distributed space systems (DSS). A follow-up blog post on the ‘Emerging Technology for Space: Distributed Space Systems’ webinar summarised the talks and discussion.