Space is becoming more and more crowded, even as man’s societal reliance on space technology is more than ever before.
With more than 20,000 pieces of debris measuring more than 10 cm, including inactive satellites and cast-off rocket parts hurtling everywhere in the Earth’s orbit, the danger of damaging collisions increases each year.
In an attempt to look into this issue, and to foster universal standards in waste mitigation, the World Economic Forum has selected a team led by the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, along with a team from the European Space Agency (ESA), to introduce the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR), a concept created by the Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies.
Like rating systems such as the LEED certification used by the construction sector, the SSR is made to ensure long-term sustainability by boosting more responsible behavior among nations and companies taking part in space activities.
The team, announced on May 6th at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, also includes partners from Bryce Space and Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin.
The MIT portion of the team will be headed by Danielle Wood, the Benesse Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Research in Education within MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and mutually appointed in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She will be working together with Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a research engineer within the Space Enabled group. Professor Moriba Jah and Adjunct Professor Diane Howard contribute from the University of Texas at Austin building on Professor Jah’s comprehensive research on trailing and visualizing space objects and Professor Howard’s legal knowledge, while Mike French and Aschley Schiller bring know-how about space sector dynamics from Bryce. The MIT-led team collaborates with the efforts of Nikolai Khlystov and Maksim Soshkin in the World Economic Forum Aerospace Industry Team as well as Stijn Lemmens and Francesca Letzia in the Space Debris Office of the European Space Agency.
Partnering with the World Economic Forum and the other partners to develop the SSR is directly in line with the mission of the Media Lab's Space Enabled research group, of which Wood is also the founder and head, to progress justice in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space.
“One element of justice is ensuring that every country has the opportunity to participate in using space technology as a form of infrastructure to provide vital services in our society such as communication, navigation, and environmental monitoring,” Wood says.
A number of aspects of modern society rely on satellite services. Weather reports, for instance, rely on a worldwide network of weather satellites worked mainly by governments.
Furthermore, trains, ships, car drivers, and airplanes regularly use satellite positioning services. These same positioning satellites also provide a very accurate timing signal used by the global banking system to exactly time financial transactions.
“Our global economy depends on our ability to operate satellites safely in order to fly in planes, prepare for severe weather, broadcast television and study our changing climate,” Wood says. “To continue using satellites in orbit around Earth for years to come, we need to ensure that the environment around Earth is as free as possible from trash leftover from previous missions.”
When satellites are discharged from useful service, a number of them will remain in orbit for several years longer, contributing to the issue of space debris.
In an ideal scenario, satellites will slowly drift down to lower orbits and be reduced to ashes in Earth's atmosphere. However, the higher the orbit a satellite is functioning in, the longer it takes to reach the Earth's atmosphere and burn up.
When satellite operators plan their satellite’s design, they are able to select which altitude to use and the work duration of their spacecraft. They, therefore, have an accountability to design their satellites to create as little waste as possible in Earth's orbit.
“The Space Sustainability Rating will create an incentive for companies and governments operating satellites to take all the steps they can to reduce the creation of space debris,” Wood says. “This will create a more equitable opportunity for new countries to participate in space with less risk of collision with older satellites.”
A number of governments already offer rules to companies functioning within their borders, to help decrease the amount of space debris created. The space community is also involved in a continuing discussion about novel ways to decrease the formation of debris.
But in the interim, numerous companies are aiming to blastoff large constellations of satellites that will rapidly increase the number of spacecraft in orbit. These satellite constellations will ultimately be decommissioned, adding to the increasing space junk problem.
To sort this matter, the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Space Technologies, which is made up of leaders from academia, government, and industry, has formulated the concept of a voluntary system, the SSR, to motivate those who operate satellites to produce as little debris as possible.
The recently announced team will come up with the rules and processes by which the SSR will work, including defining what information should be gathered from satellite operators to evaluate their impact on space sustainability.
“Countries in every region are starting new space programs to participate in applying space to their national development,” Wood says. “Creating the Space Sustainability Rating with our collaborators is one key step to ensure that all countries continue to increase the benefits we receive from space technology," she says.
With a lack of diversity in current strategies to handle the orbital debris challenge, the Global Future Council felt it crucial to create an industry-wide approach, according to Nikolai Khlystov, lead for aerospace industry at the World Economic Forum.
“We are very glad to partner with leading industry entities such as the European Space Agency, MIT's Space Enabled research group, the University of Texas at Austin and Bryce Space and Technology to build and launch the Space Sustainability Rating,” Khlystov says.
The envisaged SSR has a distinct goal to encourage mission designs and operational concepts that avoid an unrestricted growth in space debris and the resulting harmful effects, says Stijn Lemmens, senior space debris mitigation analyst in the Space Debris Office at ESA.
Together with our collaborators, we aim to put in place a system that has the flexibility to stimulate and drive innovative sustainable design solutions, and spotlight those missions that contribute positively to the space environment.
Stijn Lemmens, Senior Space Debris Mitigation Analyst, Space Debris Office, ESA