Issues such as how to manage space debris floating in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and securing cooperation among multiple government entities are at the forefront of the discussion around space sustainability. While this issue has gotten more attention in the space industry in recent years, the bigger challenge ahead is turning ideas into meaningful actions.
The Secure World Foundation’s fifth Summit for Space Sustainability on June 13 and 14 in New York City brought together hundreds of attendees in academia, science, technology, law, and international relations to engage in discussions around progress, opportunities, and challenges involving outer space safety and security.
“The space arena as you all know is evolving at a breathtaking pace,” noted Dr. Peter Martinez, executive director of the Secure World Foundation. “The traditional areas of launch satellite communications and Earth observation are all experiencing significant and rapid change led by the commercial sector. Existing business models are evolving, and new ones are emerging, and this is attracting the interest of non-space industries and new kinds of investors. All of these developments present great opportunities, but they also raise concerns for the long-term sustainability of space activities.”
The general outlook seemed to be that progress has been slow — yet meaningful. For example: Since September 2022, when representatives from the United States and nearly two dozen other nations that signed the Artemis Accords met for the first time at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris, additional nation states have expressed their desire to cooperate and find solutions that assure safe, sustainable space utilization and exploration.
But getting everyone on the same page is difficult, as speakers at the Summit for Space Sustainability who also attended recent meetings for the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) noted. Plus, with investment dollars available, financing the right projects at the right time has become much more difficult.
Striking a cautiously optimistic tone, Guy Ryder, Under-Secretary-General for Policy United Nations, noted that the peaceful and sustainable use of space is one of the UN’s “major preoccupations.” Notably, a UN policy brief released in May 2023 details many of the challenges with outer space governance.
“Pretty much since its establishment back in 1945, the United Nations has been an active partner in the development of space law and standards. And, indeed, COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, came into being just two years after Sputnik was launched,” said Ryder. “The most extraordinary change in recent years has been the sheer number of objects being launched into space and the fact that more objects have been launched in space in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 years combined.”
The fact that national and regional entities monitor space activities with different sets of standards, practices, definitions, languages, and modes of interoperability, makes progress difficult, he added.
“A lack of coordination among different stakeholders can make it harder for countries and for enterprises with limited space situational awareness to operate their assets in an increasingly complex environment,” said Ryder. “If we can’t agree on how to coordinate space traffic management, we risk both the safety and sustainability of space through accidents that will lead to the destruction of orbits and worryingly the breach of peace and security in outer space. So, what we need is to accelerate our work. The opportunities are too great, and the risks are too high to do otherwise.”
A Call for New ‘Rules of the Road’
Leaders from around the world emphasize the need for global collaboration.
Rebecca Evernden, director of Space, UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said she was encouraged by progress made since last year’s summit, and that the United Kingdom is taking several steps to further its commitment to space sustainability.
“Deep space is an inspirational and important topic, but actually the things that the citizens of our countries rely on every day, whether it’s to manage food supplies, manage how our energy grid works, simply doing the things that we love … if we don’t find a sustainable way of managing space, we’re not going to be able to do those things on Earth,” she said. “It’s very good that the United Nations is taking this seriously.”
Hugo André Costa, an executive member of the Portuguese Space Agency, said the biggest call to action is strengthening global governance across all economic sectors. Portugal plans to host a conference in spring of 2024, as well as multiple virtual workshops ahead of that gathering. “This is the only way we can prepare for the future,” he said. “Most of the agreements we have in space are for the ‘60s and ‘70s and what people were doing was preparing for the dates we have today.”
Valda Vikmanis Keller, director of the Office of Space Affairs for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, highlighted the recently released Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy, an initiative aimed at expanding international cooperation and responsible behavior in space activities.
“Preserving space for future generations relies on the cooperation between nations globally, private industry, academia, many different actors and the State Department,” said Keller, noting the unique communication challenges that result from bringing together a diverse group of nations.
Keller recently served as head of the U.S. delegation for COPUOS, where she talked about the role of diplomacy and implementing long-term sustainability guidelines that have been agreed to. “How do we work with our partners within the UN to identify what each country is doing? What are the opportunities, what are the challenges, where can we work together?” she asked.
Mark Dickenson, Viasat deputy CTO & vice president of Space Segment, stressed the urgency of taking a more proactive approach to satellite launches and other space activities.
“We need to come to some scientific consensus to understand what the impact is before we launch rather than trying to test it after we’ve launched,” said Dickenson. “Access to space is absolutely fundamental to humanity, not just for us but for future generations.”
Preventing Future Disasters
Discussions took a more somber tone when SWF Director Martinez, who moderated the morning sessions, asked Walter Everetts, vice president of Space and Ground Services for Iridium, to reflect on the lessons learned from the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision.
Everetts said that 2009 was a tragedy but was also a wakeup call for the space and satellite industry, for governments, and for so many others.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened but there’s a silver lining in all of that,” he said. “There is an awareness right now — and it continues to improve — of why this really does matter. We care because economics makes it important for us to have space as a viable asset. I think it’s up to us owner-operators, governments, private entities, civil entities to make sure we’re thinking in terms of, how do we sustain space?”
Everetts also suggested that meeting future goals is contingent on the steps we take to today in designing smarter, more capable satellites and ensuring business operations are aligned with best practices.
“Unfortunately, there are some nation states that are non-compliant,” he said. “[They] make it much more difficult for us to operate in this space, no pun intended.”
The urgency of disaster prevention was also the central theme in a follow-up, spotlight session, “Why a Moratorium on Anti-Satellite Testing is Important.”
Audrey Schaffer, Director for Space Policy, National Security Council, The White House, said the U.S. has taken major steps in the wake of the November 2021 Russian ASAT test, which created a debris field in LEO, to prevent similar incidents.
“Fourteen months ago, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would not conduct destruct destructive [ASAT] testing and invited other nations to join her in making similar national commitments that would establish an international norm against this irresponsible act,” said Schaffer. “Since then, 12 other nations have joined the United States in making national commitments along these lines, and the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed this concept in a resolution passed with 155 votes.”
Mark Mozena, Vice President of Government Affairs, Planet, said that for the last ten years, his organization’s cofounders have raised concerns about the impact of destructive anti-satellite weapons on a healthy space ecosystem, and said the industry must do more to reduce the threats posed by space debris.
“We cannot wait for a major disaster to occur before we act,” said Mozena. “As we know the FAA was created in part due to a disaster in 1956. Space does not have this ability to wait for disaster to prompt action. Generating events such as ASATs can cause a runaway cascade of orbital debris collisions that jeopardize space activates for all actors for generations.
A key issue is where the next financial investments in space sustainability would — and should – come from. Speakers emphasized the urgency of putting money and resources into sustainable, promising space innovations in lieu of simply giving money to multiple buzzworthy startups in the hopes that one will generate a return on investment.
Maureen Haverty, vice president and investor for Seraphim Space said venture capitalists consider multiple factors when evaluating potential investments, including whether the market is large enough, but also whether a potential solution will reduce the cost of accessing space.
“I think VCs were extremely shy about investing in … services in the space market itself, because [they] really felt that was way too small,” said Haverty. “And now we’re onto the exponential curve for a number of satellites in space … when market is growing large enough to actually drive a real return. It’s starting to feel like the market is too dry right now for the news to actually support [VC]-style returns… In general if you invest in a seed stage, you’re looking for a 50 to 100 times return, as risks decrease over time.”
Speaking on the future of investments in space sustainability investments, Haverty said that one of the key drivers of investment is “getting the most out of the satellites you’re launching,” suggesting that VCs will be even more focused on whether a solution can deliver efficiency.
Seeing Space Sustainability Through an ESG Lens
ESG — the application of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles — plays a role in space sustainability, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability as a core component.
Calling ESG “a framework for how we operate our businesses, so we do no harm to the planet we occupy in the communities we reside in,” Erin L. Smith, sustainability strategy executive of Global Commercial Bank and Business Bank, Bank of America, said it’s no longer a “nice to have” so much as a “need to have.”
“Younger investors want their profits, or their assets, not just to be profitable, but also to be purposeful,” said Smith. “Companies that combine their business model and their purpose with an ESG-aligned mission … are going to be better prepared to attract, recruit, develop, and retain top talent.”
Justyna Redelkiewicz, head of Section Consumer Solutions, Market and Technology at the European Union Agency for Space Programme (EUSPA), said her organization has been focusing on how space data can help European companies monitor their ESG targets.
“You will be probably not surprised that satellites give you the best data for what is going on in our climate … how glaciers are melting, how temperature is increasing, how sea level is rising,” said Redelkiewicz. “We have seen that only around 20 percent of corporates in Europe use space data for this purpose and the potential is much, much bigger.”
Amber Ledgerwood, director of Social and Environmental Impact for SES said that the operator has shifted its focus to building an organization where people feel like they have a purpose and can make a positive social impact.
“That was the instigator of starting an ESG program and that was the motivator for us, trying to build up a strategy that made sense for us and that was totally aligned with our business strategy,” she said, adding that the first pillar of this respective strategy is space sustainability. As such, SES is focusing on actions that drive a more sustainable space environment.
“We’re doing things, actions, that make us more mindful of our [footprint], like getting certified with a space sustainability rating, working with the Space Data Association to share information in space,” said Ledgerwood. “The keystone project we’re working on is lifecycle assessments. SES really wants to step out so that we can understand both the environmental impact of our satellites on the planet but also in the space segment … beyond just GHG emissions, but also looking at resource depletion, mass left in space, acidification, [and] other indicators of environmental sustainability.” VS