Explained | The need for spatial sustainability

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How do orbital clutter and space debris work against the sustainability of outer space? What is the UK Astro Carta model?

How do orbital clutter and space debris work against the sustainability of outer space? What is the UK Astro Carta model?

The story so far: On June 23, the UK hosted the fourth Space Sustainability Summit in London in conjunction with the Secure World Foundation. In line with the UK’s ambitious National Space Strategy, George Freeman, Minister for Science, has announced a new ‘Space Sustainability Plan’. According to him, this plan aims to “establish a global commercial framework for the insurability, licensing and regulation of commercial satellites”. It also aims to reduce costs for those who comply with the best sustainability standards and thus encourages a thriving ecosystem for the industry.

What does durability in outer space mean?

Earth’s orbital environment has more than tripled in the past decade. As the cost of missions decreases and the number of players increases, so does the complexity of missions and the issues of slot allocation. With the emergence of large constellations and complex satellites, there is a risk of radio frequency collisions and interference. With outer space considered a shared natural resource, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2019 adopted a set of 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure sustainability. long-term space activities.

Orbital clutter is one of the hottest issues in space sustainability. It poses a direct threat to mission operations and security and is likely to cause legal and insurance disputes. Space debris is another significant problem. After the completion of a mission, an “end-of-life protocol” requires that space objects be moved to graveyard orbit or low altitude. None of the options are viable in the long term. Other causes for concern are solar and magnetic storms which potentially damage communication systems. These space weather threats must be addressed alongside efforts to identify the terrestrial carbon footprint of space missions.

Long-term sustainability looks to space research and technology development to ensure satellite reuse and recycling at every stage. The British plan proposes active debris removal and in-orbit servicing.

What does the UK plan for space sustainability entail?

The UK is calling for an ‘Astro Carta’ for space sustainability, based on the model of the Artemis Accords for sustainable space exploration. The UK plan for sustainable space development mentions four main elements: reviewing the regulatory framework for UK orbital activity; work with organizations such as the G-7 and the UN to emphasize international commitment to the sustainability of space; try to develop measures related to safety and quality that quantify the sustainability of activities; and induce additional funding of $6.1 million for active debris removal. The UK has also confirmed investments in its National Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme, which is working on collision assessment services for UK-licensed satellite operators.

After Brexit, the British space program has been transformed. He now hopes to drive the sustainability factor internationally and provide the private sector with an opportunity to develop designs that improve operational safety and reduce the debris footprint. The UK aims to attract investment not only from government investors, but also from others.

What is India’s position on space sustainability?

The headquarters of India’s National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (In-SPACe) was officially opened last month. An increased role of the private sector in India’s space activities can be expected. India is home to promising start-ups like Agnikul and Skyroot, which are developing launch vehicles for small payloads, and Dhruva Space, which is working on high-tech solar panels for satellites and satellite deployers. India is well on its way to creating a sub-system that addresses global sustainability issues.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has launched the “NETRA Project” to monitor space debris. The national monitoring system would provide first-hand information on the state of the debris, which would facilitate further planning for the protection of space assets. In April 2022, India and the United States signed a new pact for space object surveillance during the 2+2 dialogue. Controlled Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASAT) testing and collision risks must be addressed collectively.

To provide in-orbit service, ISRO is developing a docking experiment called “SPADEX”. It looks at docking a satellite to an existing satellite, providing assistance with refueling and other in-orbit services while improving a satellite’s capability. According to Professor PG Diwakar of NIAS Bangalore, this would not only ensure the longevity of a mission, but also provide a futuristic option for combining missions/experiments.

And then ?

Outer space in the 2020s can no longer be considered a “space race” due to its cost, compared to the beginning of this century. Today, any entity (governmental or private) with the necessary access to resources and technology can invest in outer space. Sustainable practices in outer space would directly contribute to reducing orbital clutter and collision risk while promoting future technologies. As a natural course of evolution, the Space Sustainability Plan, which includes private industries, is a timely decision. This would serve as a model for other space programs.

However, the big issue of sustainability cannot be driven by one country/entity. While most national space programs set standards for sustainability, a collective effort by all space actors, with the active role of UN COPUOS or the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), is needed to establish sustainability standards. fair standards for ease of doing business. Many sustainability measures are resource-intensive and costly for small and medium-sized space programs. In this case, private sustainability standards initiatives would make accessibility more difficult, giving an unfair advantage to programs with stable investments.

The British idea of ​​Astro Carta highlights the need to address the principles and rules that guide the activities of entities in space. More clarity is needed to know the exact framework and guiding principles of the Astro Carta to determine the path it intends to take. India has always emphasized cost effective and efficient missions with problem solving applications. Its debris footprint is tiny; it has 114 debris among the 25,182 pieces, sizes greater than 10 cm, in lower Earth orbits. The emerging private sector could be encouraged by a set of sustainability guidelines to ensure optimal use of resources and increase mission safety and productivity.

The author is a PhD student at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

THE ESSENTIAL

With outer space considered a shared natural resource, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2019 adopted a set of 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure sustainability. long-term space activities.

The UK plan for sustainable space development mentions four main elements: reviewing the regulatory framework for UK orbital activity; emphasize international commitment to space sustainability; try to develop measures related to safety and quality that quantify the sustainability of activities; and, to leverage additional funding for active debris removal.

ISRO launched the “NETRA Project” to monitor space debris. The national monitoring system would provide first-hand information on the state of the debris, which would facilitate further planning for the protection of space assets.

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