Greening the Future of Outer Space

A team of scientists and policy experts want to develop space sustainably for future generations

Artist’s impression of satellites and debris in low-Earth orbit. Currently 70 percent of all cataloged objects are in low-Earth orbit, which extends to 2000 km above the Earth’s surface. (European Space Agency)
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The Outer Space Treaty—written in 1967 and signed by all the major world powers—is the closest thing we have to a constitution for space. For a document conceived before the moon landing, it’s remarkably forward-looking: it declares “celestial bodies” like the moon and asteroids off-limits for private development and requires countries authorize and continually supervise companies’ activities in space. It also says that space exploration should be carried out for the benefit of all peoples, and it explicitly prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space.

But even with that impressive scope of vision, the treaty’s authors could never have imagined where we’d be now. Currently there are 1,738 man-made satellites in orbit around our planet. As they become more affordable to build and launch—think of them as the drones of low Earth orbit—they’ll no doubt proliferate and vie for valuable real estate there with space stations, space tourists, space colonists, space miners, military spacecraft, and thousands of derelict satellites and other immobile debris.

So far no one has any idea how to deal with the scientific and engineering challenges—let alone the political, legal, and business ones—involved in sustainably managing orbital debris and mining celestial objects. “There needs to be a path moving forward with economic and science opportunities, but doing it in a way that mitigates damage as much as possible and hopefully with no conflicts,” says Aaron Boley, a planetary physicist at the University of British Columbia.

That’s why he and at least six other space scientists, policy experts, and legal scholars from Canada, the U.S., the UK, and China are putting together the world’s first Institute for the Sustainable Development of Space—essentially a space-focused think tank. The collaboration of experts from science, policy, and industry sectors aim to find long-term solutions so that future generations of space explorers can continue where today’s leaves off. Building on the original principles of the Outer Space Treaty, applying those same themes of international governance to a new space age.

Their organization will officially start in November with a space policy conference and workshop, and they plan to produce reports and white papers aimed at national and international audiences. They’ve already received seed funding from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and university funding for the conference.

With their focus on sustainable development, Boley and his team come across as a band of space environmentalists. They want to treat space like a global commons, something that can be used but also must be protected, so that today’s space activities don’t compromise future ones. Earthly analogs include conflicts over forests or oceans, where people or even nations on their own might think they’re having a minimal impact—but their combined extractions of resources or pollution result in overfished or threatened species. Sustainably fished species can survive indefinitely, while some practices, like fish trawling or proposed seafloor mining, could cause more lasting damage.

Space activities that threaten to fill up low Earth orbit or pulverize a unique asteroid could be similarly scrutinized. “We can’t really take on space and think of it in terms of nation boundaries,” says Tanya Harrison, director of research at Arizona State University’s NewSpace Initiative, which develops academic-commercial partnerships, “because whatever anyone’s doing up there is going to have an effect on everyone else—like if your satellites are taking up useful orbits or crashing into lots of other satellites.”

Harrison, Boley and their colleagues believe that orbital debris is the most pressing and formidable problem facing space development today. It will only worsen as we witness the commercialization of low Earth orbit in the next decade or two, they say. If one day a collision begets another and another, like in the 2013 movie Gravity, it could produce an impenetrable ring of debris that effectively prevents future space activities for everyone else. Until unproven technologies for vacuuming, netting, or harpooning debris become viable, temporary solutions are needed.

Currently the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversee licenses allowing companies to launch a satellite into orbit. Each satellite has to have its own debris mitigation plan, which usually means falling back to Earth within 25 years or boosting up higher into a “graveyard orbit” (where there’s still a risk of collision, albeit a much smaller one).

At the same time, the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center tracks orbiting objects and catalogs them in an ever growing database. But knowledge of their orbits degrades over time, and it’s challenging for someone to remotely pilot a satellite to avoid an object whose position they don’t exactly know, says Daniel Scheeres, an expert on aerospace engineering and satellite navigation at the University of Colorado. Constant monitoring of so many objects seems a daunting task, with swarms of small satellites now more affordable to send up into space than their larger, traditional counterparts.

For example, at any one time, San Francisco-based Planet Labs, a private Earth imaging company, has some 200 orbiting satellites between the size of a shoe box and a washing machine. They generally fly at altitudes of 500 kilometers, which is below the densest regions and makes it easier for the satellites’ orbits to naturally decay over a few years’ time, upon which they fall and burn up in reentry. “There’s a recognition that this is in everyone’s best interest, because if we start seeing cascading collisions, debris generating more debris, then everyone loses,” says Mike Safyan, the company’s vice president of launch and global ground systems.

But what if not everyone acts in everyone’s best interest? No one has taken responsibility for a plethora of unidentified and unmaneuverable debris already polluting the atmosphere, and it doesn’t help that China blew one of its satellites to smithereens with a missile in 2007 or that two years later a U.S. satellite collided with a larger, defunct Russian one. “There’s no overarching authority. There’s no traffic cop — the U.S. isn’t able to tell the Russian Federation what to do. What we can do is get together around a table,” says Diane Howard, and expert of space policy and law at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Hundreds of government officials, industry representatives, scientists, and retired astronaut Scott Kelly will come together on June 20 at the Vienna International Centre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, organized before the ink dried on the original Outer Space Treaty. They’ll talk about “the future course of global space cooperation for the benefit of humankind,” and they’ll kick off a meeting of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which includes a discussion on the sustainable development of space.

COPUOS has already devised and approved 21 guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space. But their recommendations are hamstrung by what its members will allow, and the scientific and commercial communities are not well-represented there, according to David Kendall, the committee’s former chair and a member of Boley’s team.

Without clear international leadership and oversight and without an updated Outer Space Treaty on the horizon, a handful of individual countries have established their own space laws. The U.S., which is home to many of the big players, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, and Moon Express—to name a few—passed the first one in 2015. It includes an arguably “liberal” interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty, as Kendall put it, allowing U.S.-based companies to take minerals or water ice from an asteroid, for example, as their own property.

“The mission of this think tank is a timely one,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space law expert at the University of Mississippi, “because the regulatory regime is being drastically changed, and someone needs to be looking at the environmental and sustainability issues.”

Unlike space debris, the prospects and challenges of space tourism, moon bases and asteroid mining seem far off, both in terms of technology and investment. But these fledgling industries will likely get off the ground sooner rather than later, and people like Boley and his collaboration want to be ready when that day comes.

“This is an issue that shares themes with climate change and global warming,” Scheeres says. “At some point we have to realize that we’re filling up the space in which we live with our own detritus.”

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