We all know that space is becoming more accessible – the cost per kilogram to orbit continues to decline, while demand for space-based infrastructure is growing as our technology-enabled world needs access to space assets to enhance capability. Space is and will continue to be an enabler of our future lives.
Yet Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) is becoming increasingly congested. This is a trend that will continue. Currently there are around 10,000 satellites in orbit – nearly 8,000 of which are active. However, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), to date states have registered ratio frequencies with the International Telecommunications Union for more than 1.7 million Non-Geostationary (NGSO) satellites. Of these, over 1 million may be launched in 2028, according to a recent UNOOSA policy brief. Inevitably, many of these satellites will not be launched, but the magnitude of expectations is staggering.
This growth trajectory brings with it challenges as well as opportunities, in particular how to ensure that the orbits around earth (as well as those beyond) remain accessible.
Currently the space domain is governed by international treaties that were largely written at a time when only a handful of nation states were accessing space. Today, over 70 nations have a space agency and, increasingly, the private sector is taking a leading role in space exploration and development. In 2022 35 percent of the 186 orbital launches were commercial spacecraft carried by commercial vehicles, with a further 18 percent of orbital launches conducted by companies serving government clients, according to the BryceTech report, 2022 Orbital Launches.
However, access to finance can be a barrier to ambition. To ensure that the private sector continues and grows its involvement in this sector, we need to better understand and mitigate risks.
In June, I attended the unveiling of the Astra Carta seal by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace and, prior to this, the Space Sustainability Symposium at the Royal Society hosted by the Minister of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. Both events focused on sustainability – how to ensure that we are able to continue to access, and enjoy the benefits of, outer space well into the future.
The Astra Carta aims to provide a framework to accelerate sustainable practices across the global space industry. It provides a set of guidelines and ideas. The expectation is that aligning the private sector, governments and international organizations in a shared endeavor will deliver more effective regulation and greater accountability for the use of space.
The Charter has a number of ambitions, including incentivizing sustainable growth. Focus on in-space operations, debris mitigation, and end-of-life disposal should help to reduce some of the risks associated with space. The Astra Carta highlights the importance of investing in technology and infrastructure that enable on-orbit repairs, refueling, and upgrading of satellites. As well as reducing the need for new launches and minimizing space debris, extending the life and minimizing downtime of satellites should provide investors with greater returns.
One of Astra Carta’s ambitions is to establish a more robust framework for global space traffic management, so we can continue to safely operate as orbits become increasingly crowded. Improving tracking and monitoring capabilities (including developing automated collision avoidance systems) should enable operators to better identify potential collision risks and facilitate more informed decision-making in orbit.
Enhanced capability is however only part of the solution. The Astra Carta also recognizes the importance of communication and cooperation between operators. Currently, national and regional entities coordinate space traffic with different sets of standards, best practices, definitions, languages and modes of interoperability. A common approach is necessary, underpinned by a clearer and more robust regulatory landscape.
It is increasingly important to develop international standards, protocols, and guidelines for responsible space operations. This includes standards for satellite operations, orbital debris mitigation and space traffic management. More effective regulation, with broad international support, is vital if we are to improve certainty for private sector companies, improve access to finance and encourage investment in new space technologies and services.
Finally, it is important to recognize and reward best practices. The Astra Carta encourages the development of certification and labeling programs that incentivize space endeavors that meet or exceed sustainability standards. This approach is already being implemented: the U.K. government is working with industry to develop a new Space Sustainability Standard to reward responsible and sustainable space activities.
The Astra Carta sets out an ambitious vision. As that vision is realized, it should help to reduce risk and encourage private sector investment and commercialization of space. The proposed approach will help to maximize the benefits that space can bring not just tomorrow, but also into the future. VS
Imogen Ormerod is an associate for the Linklaters law firm.