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The Need for space sustainability

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  • Published
    13th Jul, 2022

Overview

  • What does space sustainability means?
  • Need of sustainable plan for Space
  • Global Cooperation
  • Space as a shared ‘Natural resource’
  • Challenges
  • Suggestions

Context

Focusing on U.K.National Space Strategy, the fourth summit for Space Sustainability in London was hosted in collaboration with the Secure World Foundation.

Background

  • Space sustainability comes into play to address the pressing current state of near-Earth orbits and its high amounts of orbital debris.
  • Spacecraft collisions with orbital debris, space weather, overcrowding in low earth orbit (LEO) makes spacecraft susceptible to higher rates of failure.
  • The current end-of-life protocol for spacecraft exacerbates the space sustainability crisis; many spacecraft are not properly disposed, which increasing the likelihood of further collisions.

Key highlights of the Summit

  • A new plan has been announced as ‘Plan for Space Sustainability.’
  • This plan aims to set a global commercial framework for the insurability, the licensing and the regulation of commercial satellites.
  • It also aims to reduce the cost for those who comply with the best sustainability standards and thus encourages a thriving ecosystem for the industry.

Analysis

What does space sustainability means?

  • Long-term sustainability looks toward space research and development of technology to ensure the reuse and recycling of satellites at every stage is known as Space sustainability.

How does the plan propose to achieve space sustainability?

  • The U.K. calls for an “Astro Carta” for space sustainability, based on the Artemis Accords model for sustainable space exploration.
  • The plan proposes:
    • Active debris removal and in-orbit servicing,
    • Encouraging space research and the development of technology to ensure the reuse and;
    • Recycling of satellites at every stage.

Need for considering Space sustainability

  • Increasing number of satellites: With the emergence of large constellations and complex satellites, there is a risk of collisions and interference with radio frequencies.
  • Security challenges: As more countries integrate space into their national military capabilities and rely on space-based information for national security, there is an increased chance that any interference with satellites.
  • Expansion of private sector: The expansion of private sector space activities poses new challenges to maintaining a safe operational environment in space, while offering opportunities to expand access to the benefits of space applications on Earth.

What are the challenges in achieving space sustainability?

  • Orbital crowding poses a big threat to space sustainability. This poses a direct threat to the operations and safety of a mission and is likely to cause legal and insurance-related conflicts.
  • Space debris: After the completion of a mission, an ‘end-of-life protocol’ requires space objects to be moved to the graveyard orbit or to a low altitude. Neither of the options is sustainable in the long run.
  • Solar and magnetic storms: These storms can potentially damage communication systems. Such space weather threats need to be addressed along with the efforts to identify the terrestrial carbon footprint of outer space missions.

Where does India stand on space sustainability?

India has always emphasised cost-effective and efficient missions with problem-solving applications. For example, India’s debris footprint is minuscule; India has 114 debris among the 25,182 pieces of sizes larger than 10 cm in the lower earth orbits. Apart from that, the recent activities of India on space sustainability are;

  • Project NETRA: The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has initiated ‘Project NETRA’ to monitor space debris, 
  • Earlier this year, India and the U.S. signed a new pact for monitoring space objects at the 2+2 dialogue, 
  • Increased private participation: With Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (In-SPACe), India expects an increased role of the private sector in India’s space activities, and
  • SPADEX: ISRO is developing a docking experiment to provide in-orbit servicing named SPADEX. It looks at docking a satellite on an existing satellite, offering support in re-fuelling and other in-orbit services while enhancing the capability of a satellite.
  • Hence, the SPADEX can increase the longevity of a mission and also provide a futuristic option to combine missions/experiments.

Global Initiatives

  • COPUOS: As the outer space is considered a shared natural resource, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2019 adopted a set of 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. 
  • The U.K. Space Sustainability plan: It mentions four primary elements:
    • To review the regulatory framework of the U.K.’s orbital activity;
    • To emphasise international engagement on space sustainability;
    • To try and develop safety and quality-related metrics that quantify the sustainability of activities; and,
    • To induce additional funding for active debris removal.

Required measures

  • Global Cooperation: A collective effort by all space players, with the active role of the UN COPUOS or the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), is needed to set equitable standards for the ease of activities, 
  • Conservation of resources: Many of the measures for sustainability are resource-consuming and expensive for medium-and-small space programs. Hence, there is a need for addressing the principles and rules that guide the activities in outer space with better clarity, and 
  • Proper Guidelines: Encourage the private sector with a set of sustainability guidelinesto ensure optimum utilisation of resources and increase the safety and productivity of missions.

Conclusion

Our duty is to endure that all humanity can continue to use outer space for peaceful purposes and socioeconomic benefit now and in the long term. This will require international cooperation, discussion, and agreements designed to ensure that outer space is safe, secure, and peaceful.

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