SATELLITE 2020’s New “Co-Lab” Event Puts Space Debris Center-Stage

This coming March, the SATELLITE 2020 show will be establishing a consortium of more than a dozen civil space, government, military, academic, and commercial industry organizations that will work together to create a global sustainable orbital environment. This team of collaborators will participate in a workshop program called “Co-Lab,” which will be held on site on SATELLITE’s exhibit hall floor. Co-Lab, which has already engaged in preliminary planning with organizations like NASA’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division (SSPD) and the Federal Aviation Administration, will represent the widest-reaching public display of collaboration to address the increasing risks associated with orbital debris.

The mission for Co-Lab is clear. Space debris presents both an industry-wide problem and a shared responsibility. According to NASA and ESA statistical models, there are well more than 20,000 dangerous objects of space debris, traveling at speeds that would guarantee destruction of any spacecraft in the line of fire. With several small satellite constellations scheduled to launch during the next few years, (A 2018 NASA study of pending large constellations summarized that 99 percent of post-mission de-orbiting is needed to prevent a significant rise in space debris), increasing tensions in the geopolitical landscape, and decreasing cooperation and communication between global space-faring superpowers, a significant spike in orbital debris is all but imminent and the risk of operating in space will dramatically increase. And, we all know that nothing stifles innovation more effectively than increased risk.

Co-Lab will launch as a general session at the SATELLITE 2020 conference, which will outline the event’s industry engagement plan and the call for partners and participants process. Throughout the following year, it will evolve into a fully-functional private collaborative workshop space housed on the SATELLITE 2021 show floor. This space will be combined with public engagement areas. The experiment culminates with an open general conference session on Wednesday that will present the resulting agreement reached between participating organizations. The Co-Lab program will also provide scholarships to student participants, allowing them to collaborate with industry leaders and provide new ideas and perspectives on the issue.

The space and satellite industries are starting to see leaders emerge in the effort to address the Space Debris issue. NASA SSPD Deputy Division Manager Benjamin Reed’s organization has been working to provide the commercial industry with open-source tools and resources to help re-service and repurpose spacecraft. He believes that a modular design approach to new satellites will help create a more sustainable orbital environment in the future.

“The way satellites work is in need of a change,” says Reed. “Currently, when a satellite runs out of fuel, it is decommissioned, no longer able to perform its duties, only to become a contributor to the persistent problem of orbital debris. The issue that arises, however, is that the vast majority of satellites were not designed to be serviced, making refueling no easy task. This issue has been prohibitive for servicing—until now. The advent of modern day robotics, software, and computing power, has allowed NASA to develop all the necessary elements for a refueling mission.”

Dr. Martin Zhu, Economist with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration spoke at SATELLITE 2019 about building a business case for space sustainability. While the FAA serves as a regulatory organization, Zhu’s work actually focuses on new economic opportunities for commercial satellite companies that are created by addressing space debris using the U.S. Government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices established back in 2001. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to encourage the global acceptance of certain standard practices on an economic basis, and dispel misconceptions of mitigation costs and the scope of benefits,” says Zhu. “By addressing issues of space congestion, debris spill-over costs and the value of protected space regions, one could argue a strong case for significant mandatory, or hopefully, voluntary action.”

A few years ago, Zhu conducted a long-term benefit-cost breakeven analysis that was designed to counter approaches that tolerated space debris as ‘big sky’ skepticisms. Assuming major international space players would eventually mandate equivalent standards based on space debris “infestation theory,” the study employed data sourced from the U.S. commercial transportation industry, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, the FAA/AST Commercial Transportation Space Office. The results were stunning. According to Zhu, near-Earth orbital slots will generate roughly an additional $89 billion in U.S. satellite industry revenues, but the estimated active debris removal costs over a 25-year period for those same satellites would only be approximately $589 million.

“The major space-faring nations of the world would benefit from immediate orbital debris mitigation,” Zhu concludes. “Parties potentially affected by orbital debris mitigation would be license applicants for launches and reentries, commercial space transportation suppliers, satellites operators, governments and the general public.

Space debris has been a long-standing concern lingering in the minds of industry leaders. Since the first satellites were launched in 1957, space debris has been accumulating in orbital altitudes from 600 kilometers to beyond 35,000 kilometers. But, the sheer size of the next-generation LEO constellations planned for orbit has brought the issue to the forefront. In recent years, the debris density in orbits between the altitudes of 600 and 1200 kilometers has reached a level of serious concern to satellite manufacturers and operators who have expensive spacecraft flying in debris-laden orbits. Over the next few years, another 12,000 satellites may be added to the current population of active spacecraft in these orbits.

“It can be shown that a business-as­usual approach to space activities leads to a progressive, uncontrolled increase of object numbers, with collisions becoming the primary debris source within less than 50 years,” the European Space Agency published in its Space Debris Mitigation Handbook, which describes “business-as-usual” as commercial industry operational practices remaining unchanged, with almost no space objects performing end-of-life maneuvers and with explosions of colliding objects in space continuing to occur.

ESA launched its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) program in 2009, with the aim of ensuring that Europe can independently detect, predict and assess threats from space and their potential risk to life, property and infrastructure. The primary goal of the organization was to raise awareness of the constantly evolving situation of hazards in and from space. In order to communicate the urgency of the issue and support activities at its established Space Debris Office, ESA worked to consolidate information on all known objects in space. This knowledge is maintained and updated through ESA’s Database and Information System Characterizing Objects in Space (DISCOS).

DISCOS is as a single-source reference for information on launch details, orbit histories, physical properties and mission descriptions for about 38 700 objects tracked since Sputnik-1, including nearly 10 million orbit records in total. The US Space Surveillance Network provides a continuous flow of orbit data for all tracked, unclassified objects. The agency also employs the help of its prominent debris and meteoroid risk assessment tool, MASTER, or, Meteoroid and Space Debris Terrestrial Environment Reference. For long-term debris-mitigation analysis, ESA developed a three-dimensional, semi-deterministic model, called DELTA, which allows users to investigate the evolution of the space debris environment and the associated mission collision risks in LEO, MEO, and GEO orbit regions over a number of years. ESA has been especially proactive in leading efforts to provide the commercial and global space industry with research and analysis tools designed to present clarity on the dangers of debris.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in partnership with MIT, developed a Space Sustainability Rating system, whereby commercial space companies could volunteer to undergo an evaluation of their mission through a questionnaire to establish a rating. A positive rating would showcase the level of sustainability a given actor is willing to adopt to minimize the creation of orbital debris linked to its mission. By sharing its rating, the actor would provide a single point of reference externally for their mission, thereby increasing transparency and placing emphasis on its debris mitigation approach, without disclosing any mission-sensitive or proprietary information. The EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) hosted a conference session at SATELLITE 2019 that engaged commercial operator executives, WEF, and MIT in a discussion about the rating.

The response from commercial industry participants was very positive, expressing a clear interest in contributing to the greater good. SES CTO Ruy Pinto went so far as to describe involvement in the initiative as a “sign of maturity” for commercial operators.

“[Space Debris] is a growing issue, which has become more widely known to the public through the movie Gravity,” says WEF Aerospace Industry Community Lead Nikolai Khlystov. “Out-of-control space junk in LEO orbit – the so-called Kessler Syndrome – in real life would not be quite as dramatic as in the movie; however, it does pose a serious and an ever-growing threat, nonetheless.”

Khlystov notes that the WEF identified two key elements to addressing the global space debris risk: the removal of the most volatile and biggest pieces of debris from the most congested orbits; and to adjust our industry’s behavior in space in order to minimize the creation of new debris. “The UN guidelines on space debris mitigation are among the key international efforts to get different actors to follow proper rules of the road, but they are voluntary,” he says. “Along with constellations, new governments are also entering the race to get access to space. The question is, with such an increase in traffic, how do we get all the private and public actors to think more sustainably?”

Khlystov’s question summarizes the mission of Co-Lab at SATELLITE 2020, which will bring all of the aforementioned parties to the same table to discuss viable, volunteer-based practices to achieving true sustainability in space. If you or your organization is interested in participating in the Co-Lab program, contact SATELLITE 2020 Chairman Jeffrey Hill at VS

Check out Via Satellite’s podcast, On Orbit, addressing the socioeconomic value of space technology and the importance of solving space-based challenges. In an upcoming episode titled “It's Clean-up Time! The Shared Responsibility of Space Debris,” we sit down with Astroscale COO Chris Blackerby, who argues that, without immediate, global- and industry-wide action on space debris, we could be in for a perfect storm of factors leading to very serious consequences for all space-faring nations. Astroscale is creating special satellites that will grab and de-orbit dangerous debris, and in the process burning up both in a so-called satellite ‘graveyard orbit.’

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