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Sustainable Space: Utopian Dream or Reality?

When Oliver Juckenhöfel began his career in the satellite industry in the mid-1990s, commercial and governmental organizations were heavily focused on launching satellites in the most efficient way possible. The concern for creating a sustainable space environment wasn’t unimportant. But it certainly wasn’t dominating conversations — commercial players also weren’t talking about launching tons of satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

These days, Juckenhöfel, who oversees Airbus’ space activities in the United States, spends many of his working hours thinking about how to keep space clean and sustainable for the long term.

“The first wave of constellations in no way compare with the megaconstellations being rolled out right now,” says Juckenhöfel, reflecting on the somewhat bewildering speed of commercial activity since 2010. “You could compare the interest and activities on the moon to the [early 20th century] on Earth, when a lot of things were done without thinking about the consequences.”

Juckenhöfel’s concerns are not uncommon. As commercial space activity accelerates, concerns over long-term sustainability have grown among commercial, military and government stakeholders. International governing bodies like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) regularly debate the topic. It’s nearly impossible to talk about launching satellites without considering some of the biggest challenges in our orbital spheres — from radio frequency interference, to the impact of geopolitical tensions, and the large amount of debris hovering near our most precious assets.

In order to move forward, Juckenhöfel and his satellite industry peers must face the questions: What more can be done to monitor and regulate commercial space activities? What does it mean to be a good steward? To what extent could bad actors threaten sustainability?

Sustainable Visions

The vision of sustainable space looks something like this: governments and private organizations supporting each other, working collaboratively to explore and mine opportunities, clean up debris and cooperate on deep-space missions. All while restraining themselves from doing anything to harm each other. But how feasible is this, considering stories about rogue military activities, or random cubesats littering Low-Earth Orbit?

Some commercial players see true sustainability as achievable, though a lot depends on international space agencies’ ability to rein in destructive unregulated activities, like the surprise India Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon tests in March 2019, which resulted in an explosion of debris. Without strict adherence to international guidelines by all space actors, it could get worse.

Others say that true sustainability will be near impossible to achieve, due to rising geopolitical tensions, or the looming — and growing — likelihood of a mass collision wiping out communications on Earth. Everyone, however, agrees that cooperation is essential to grow a prosperous space economy.

“The concern is whether all of these industries and technologies are regulated in a way that’s beneficial to both the organization and everyone else,” says Krystal Wilson, director of space applications programs at Secure World Foundation, a 15-year-old organization created with the mission of promoting sustainable outer space. “Space is inherently a global activity. Does everybody understand what it means to behave responsibly? Can governments put an appropriate amount of regulation in place?"

In September 2019, Secure World Foundation was one of more than two dozen organizations that launched the Space Safety Coalition to address these questions, which brings together stakeholders who want to do more than just the minimum to foster a sustainable space environment. The ad-hoc collective has developed a living set of voluntary best practices for improving space safety. Members include space operators, space industry associations, and space industry stakeholders. Many of these best practices are detailed in the Foundation’s 2017 “Handbook for New Actors in Space,” which is now an industry staple.

“We’re a big fan of developing industry best practices in addition to relying on government regulation to promote good behavior, especially in an arena like space,” Wilson says. “It’s inherently more complex than air traffic control with less available up-to-the-minute data to help make good decisions. A lot of what needs to be done will come from a variety of mechanisms, ranging from national regulation to international multilateral fora to industry-led initiatives.”

Space Debris: Sustainability Spoiler?

The task of effectively managing and cleaning up space through the prevention and removal of space debris is an arduous one.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), which tracks debris objects through its Space Surveillance networks, more than 22,000 objects are currently floating around space as of January 2019. The ESA estimates that more than 500 break-ups, explosions, collisions, or anomalous events have resulted in fragmentation.

“Managing debris is challenging because what you consider debris may not be what I consider debris and that can create diplomatic issues,” says Betty Bonnardel-Azzarelli, CEO and founder AB5 Consulting & chair of the U.K. Space & Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) Chapter. “To create a sustainable space environment, management of end of life is very important. It was important 20 years ago, but is probably now more important than ever to manage assets reliably.”

One of the biggest challenges of mitigating debris stems from the characteristics of the debris itself — it’s not easy to track or capture a scrap of debris, especially if it’s smaller than a truck, and some of the smallest debris wields a powerful impact.

“Space is big, so in any cubic kilometer of space, there is probably nothing at all, but because orbital velocities are crazy high, no collision is minor collision,” says Ben Reed, director of the Satellite Servicing Projects Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The Hubble Space Telescope has a quarter-inch hole in one of its high gain antennas. If a piece of that space debris had hit another part of the observatory, it could have been catastrophic.”

Reed’s concerns are echoed by much of the space world. A growing body of experts fear we’re inching closer to an actual “Kessler Syndrome,” in which one massive collision triggers multiple subsequent collisions, ultimately taking down terrestrial communications. Most experts agree that while the likelihood that a catastrophic collision will wipe out multiple communications systems is low, it is still possible.

In November, at the U.N.’s Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) debate, representatives from multiple nations expressed dismay over increased risks of space debris taking down critical satellites, such as those that play an essential role in monitoring environmental disasters. Much of the negative buzz surrounded India’s ASAT military tests, which created dozens of fragments of debris at altitudes of 1,000 kilometers and higher.

The controversial India ASAT tests conducted last year also raised the question of whether we’ll see an influx of unregulated activities, and an influx of debris, much sooner than we can build and launch technology to clean it up.

All satellites are expected to adhere to generally accepted guidelines that call for de-orbit, or move to a graveyard orbit, within 25 years of end of life. Proponents of clean space say that satellites can and should de-orbit much sooner after end of life to avoid cluttering the skies. These regulations are not always followed, and they can be difficult to enforce, says Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale, a space-debris removal company headquartered in Japan.

“Lowering the 25-year guideline would be better as potential debris should be removed from orbit as soon as possible,” Blackerby says. “There are costs to building in a reliable de-orbit capability, though, and there is not yet a full acceptance of the benefit within the community. Fortunately … more satellite operators, both government and commercial, are recognizing the importance of long-term orbital sustainability and the need for a robust de-orbit plan.”

A Cleaner Future

On the bright side, newer technologies are better equipped to support sustainable space by improving our space situational awareness, and helping to ensure debris is captured and removed. Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and machine-learning algorithms hold promise for the satellite industry. One of the most notable innovations, Restore-L, is a robotic spacecraft equipped with robotic arms and multiple that can grasp, refuel and relocate orbiting satellites. This servicer spacecraft, being built by NASA and its satcom vendor partner, is slated to launch in 2024.

“We’re building satellites to become cooperative clients, so the probability that they become debris is lower,” Reed says.

At Airbus, Juckenhöfel’s team utilizes sophisticated technology for multiple purposes. Technology is helping to ensure that the company isn’t contaminating anything in the process of bringing organic materials to other planets. Airbus is also investing in electrical propulsion, and using fewer chemical fuels during launches and for satellites.

“What we need to do is find the right technological approach,” Juckenhöfel says. “The rebirth of space under the label of NewSpace means more and more actors are bringing stuff like cubesats up there without self-propulsion, and it is starting to be a problem for everyone up there.”

At Astroscale, meanwhile, Blackerby hopes future technology innovations will enable a greater understanding of what space looks like, and where the risk of collision is greatest.

“All of us holds a responsibility to maintain space,” Blackerby says. “We benefit from what we’re getting in space every day, but space is an asset and a resource that’s under threat.”

Debris cleanup business kicks into high gear

Investors are betting big on clean space, and the ability of startups like Astroscale, founded in 2013 as a space-debris removal company, to clean it.

In 2020, some of the investments made in the previous decade are starting to pay off.

Two years since Astroscale closed a $50 million raise in Series D funding (led by INCJ Ltd.), followed by an additional $30 million extension in April 2019, the Japan-based organization has stayed busy.

In 2019, the company expanded its international presence with the opening of an office in Denver. And in January, Astroscale announced a $4.5 million contract from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s “Innovation Tokyo Project” to build a roadmap for commercializing active debris removal services.

There are others getting active in the business of cleaning space with innovative new technology solutions.

Last year academic researchers from New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced plans to develop cleanup cubist called OSCaR (Obsolete Spacecraft Capture and Removal), which would hunt down and de-orbit debris through the use of onboard nets and tethers, with little guidance from controllers on the ground, according to a news release.

And in December, the European Space Agency announced that ClearSpace-1 — led by Swiss startup ClearSpace — will be the first space mission to remove an item of debris from orbit when it launches in 2025. The ESA hopes to help establish a new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal.

“This is the right time for such a mission,” Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace, said in a news release. “The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before. Today we have nearly 2,000 live satellites in space and more than 3,000 failed ones.” VS