Urgency and Commitment:

A Global Look at Space Sustainability

Illustration of space-based telescopes proposed by Astrium’s Dr. Jens Utzmann for tracking debris, courtesy of Astrium.

, Executive Director
Broomfield, Colo.
Secure World Foundation

Imaging technologies and capabilities were frequently front and center at the International Space University’s 16th Space Symposium. Convened under the title “Sustainability of Space Activities: International Issues and Potential Solutions,” the event gathered more than 150 people in Strasbourg, France, for a three-day, interdisciplinary look at emerging environmental challenges to space activity.

As might be expected, the multiple challenges of space debris and its mitigation filled a large part of the agenda, but space weather; ground station vulnerabilities; concerns about weaponization of space; and the political and economic complexities of data sharing, policy coordination, and risk assessment also received attention.

In the keynote address, international concerns about threats to the continued use of space were presented by Gerard Brachet, President of the French Air and Space Academy, Former Chairman of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), and member of the Secure World Foundation Board of Advisors. Summarizing the growing emphasis UNCOPUOS is placing on this issue, he repeatedly emphasized the concern that “our ability to use outer space in the long term is not guaranteed.”

Over the next three days, 44 papers and 22 posters supported this assertion, offering various levels of optimism that the challenges we now face could be overcome.

A paper by Dr. Jens Utzmann of Astrium made a strong case for employing earthward-looking space-based telescopes to supplement the surveillance and tracking of debris. (See Figure 1.) The paper inspires the question whether other sensors or technologies developed by the imaging community might be adapted for application in the effort to keep critical orbits more secure from space trash. Focusing on the particular problems of debris in the LEO (Low Earth Orbit), GEO (geostationary orbit) and sun-synchronous belts, several papers proposed methods for removing the clutter through various forms of direct action ranging from large deployable nets to the use of lasers both on the ground and in orbit.

While generating a lot of technical interest and earning some cautious credibility, these proposed solutions were also greeted with considerable political and legal concern recognizing the fine line between their potential for peaceful use and their adaptability to more hostile applications.

In a paper co-authored with Alanna Krolikowski from the University of Toronto, the German space agency DLR’s Emmanuelle David noted the extent to which a vehicle designed for On Orbit Servicing would be a “perfect space weapon,” and conceptualized the policy that fact raised. She also addressed issues that will be on the critical path in any future implementation of commercial on-orbit servicing, emphasizing as did a poster by ISU Masters student Meagan Kane that the problem of debris may harbor commercial opportunities.

Any doubt that these issues were also of concern to governments and their space agencies was dispelled by presentations from the U.S. Department of State, NASA, the French space agency (CNES), the Japanese (JAXA), and the European (ESA).

Sharing substantial areas of agreement, these presentations all conveyed a sense of urgency and a commitment to seeking international solutions with particular emphasis on the importance of upcoming UN deliberations on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBM) and on ongoing discussions about an international code of conduct for space activity.

A sobering note in the French presentation reflected that country’s analysis of specific problems France has had with debris-caused damage to its satellites, reporting that France calculates that it faces a 1% chance per year of losing one of the country’s 17 satellites in LEO due to a collision with a medium-sized object (defined loosely as trackable fragments larger than 10 cm). Given that seven of these birds are classified as active earth observation satellites, this hits pretty close to home.

A paper by Akira Kato and Yukihito Ktazawa of JAXA argued strongly for increased physical shielding of spacecraft against collisions with small objects, while a paper by Nathalie Meusy, Head of the Coordination Office on Sustainable Development at ESA, focused on issues of terrestrial environmental and economic sustainability connected to space activity.

Tiffany Chow of the Secure World Foundation, in a paper she co-authored with her colleague Brian Weeden, presented grounds for optimism that cooperative international solutions to space sustainability could be found. This paper showed creatively how the work on “governing the commons” by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom could be applied to the task of advancing the sustainable use of space.

An issue of potential concern to everyone interested in developing and using new space applications was raised in the several papers advocating increased shielding as the most logical solution to protecting satellites from small debris. Inevitably, extra shielding means tilting the mass budget from sensors and processors to exterior satellite structure. When this cost is combined with the extra fuel required by strategies focusing on maneuvering spacecraft out of harm’s way, the resulting reduction in payload mass or increase in cost could have a braking effect on innovation and access to space assets.

An extremely rewarding aspect of the symposium was the addition of papers on space weather. Many participants noted that they rarely had the opportunity to mix the communities researching space weather and space debris and they found the experience very worthwhile.

Space weather papers not only discussed the impact of solar maxima on debris orbiting the earth, but also addressed several examples of space weather phenomena that could threaten satellite operations and ground station capabilities.

While ISU’s symposium provided a rich opportunity to explore the interrelated issues confronting the long-term sustainability of space activities, it may have done its greatest service by stimulating thought about what is to come. Although most papers and posters had a practical focus on the challenge of protecting current space assets and capabilities, they also included hints of the threat to future development posed by the rapidly growing volume of troublesome space objects.

What seems to be emerging is a recognition that the problem of what could be called static sustainability (protecting what we have) is only a small part of a more troubling problem. There seems to be also a challenge of dynamic sustainability in which our ability to innovate and expand, and to broaden participation and extend the population of potential space beneficiaries beyond current levels could be put at risk by the rising costs and complexities of adapting to our own carelessness.

The failure to keep orbits clear and accessible, the unmet threats of space weather to satellite durability, and the unfilled need for more clearly established policy and procedures to permit rapid coordination among governments and major commercial players all complicate the lives of mission planners, spacecraft designers, operators, and users as they seek not only to preserve current capabilities but also to build new ones for the future.

The good news is that space is not only congested, contested, and competitive, as U.S. speakers often point out – it is also invested. In the 54 years since Sputnik 1, we have put a lot of junk into space, but we have also put enough resources there to build a large constituency of people with an interest in both static and dynamic sustainability.

As we think of keeping space available and accessible not only for today’s projects but for those we dream of for the future, we should remember that the greatest of the resources we have invested in that future is ourselves.

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