The exponential growth in debris and news of near-miss collisions in low Earth orbit are grabbing the headlines, but practical solutions to these challenges - either technical or political - are thin on the ground. Perhaps it is time to look earthward for inspiration? The authors consider the legacy of terrestrial energy industries and seek to answer the question whether any part of this experience can be transferred to the space environment.
Global space activity is already worth an estimated US$400 billion annually and this figure is set to increase dramatically as more companies take advantage of cheaper access to space and related developments in technology.
The corollary of this increase in commercial activity is a significant expansion in the number of satellites in orbit around Earth. Since 1957, almost 10,000 satellites have been launched, but this could pale into insignificance with the rise of the constellations: SpaceX’s Starlink, to name but one high profile constellation, may ultimately consist of more than 30,000 spacecraft.
Could the legacy of terrestrial energy decommissioning be transferred in some way to the space environment?
Indeed, SpaceX is not alone in contemplating the use of large numbers of small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), with companies from around the world looking to use these so-called mega-constellations to provide enhanced communications and unprecedented internet connectivity across the planet. The potential developments are on a scale that will dwarf the existing population of space objects.
Such a dramatic increase in the orbital population will undoubtedly have a profound effect on the way in which future space activity is conducted. One crucial issue is how to manage the satellites that are no longer operational and, for whatever reason, are still in orbit. Of the 10,000 satellites that have been launched, around 5000 remain in orbit but only around 2300 of them are currently operational.
When space activity was restricted to countries with a superpower budget, the relatively low numbers of space objects meant that there was no real need to worry about what happened at the end of a satellite’s life. However, as space is becoming increasingly busier and particular orbits are in danger of becoming overcrowded, there is now a pressing need to remove those satellites that have ended their useful life. End-of-life operations and procedures for getting dead satellites out of busy orbits will become ever more important.
A dramatic increase in the orbital population will undoubtedly have a profound effect on the way in which future space activity is conducted
Whilst space itself may be ‘big’, the useful space around the Earth is finite, and orbits desirable for satellite operations are even more constrained. Given the number of proposed satellites, the space community will need to explore ways in which to manage the increased satellite traffic and remove the threat posed by non-functional or ‘dead’ satellites.
The dangers posed by the current preponderance of space debris have been well documented, while increasing the numbers of satellites serves only to increase the risk of a serious in-orbit collision. Current guidelines seek to prevent the creation of new debris, but they are not binding internationally and do not address the existing space debris population.
decommissioning in extrime environment
Alongside the need to remove existing, non-operational satellites, it is also necessary to facilitate the removal of any future satellites that malfunction and contribute to the debris population. Given the projected increase in the orbital population, even a small failure rate could see a significant number of uncontrolled objects posing an even greater threat to the space ecosystem.
There are, however, technology-based solutions on the horizon, some of which are being developed to remove failed satellites from orbit. For example, Astroscale’s ELSA-d mission, to be launched in March 2021, will be the first commercial mission to demonstrate the core technologies necessary for active debris docking and removal in low Earth orbit.
With technology beginning to emerge and the pressing need identified, the big question remains - how can the removal of satellites from orbit be encouraged among the global space community?
A well-documented collision between the Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian military spacecraft in 2009 caused the destruction of both objects and produced a significant increase in space debris. Over a decade has lapsed since the collision and, while there has been widespread concern about the possible dangers of another such incident, this has not translated into concrete action.
Perhaps we need to look beyond the space industry for signs that an environment, once damaged, can be regenerated.
Current guidelines seek to prevent the creation of new debris, but they are not binding internationally
Although the physical aspects of the space domain provide unique technical challenges for any ‘clean up space’ campaign, the issues faced by the space community are not without terrestrial parallels.
The terrestrial environmental movement has been addressing the problem of returning environments to their natural state for many decades, such that the industries that deliver the world’s energy resources are now obliged to consider how to deal with assets that pose a danger to the environment once they have reached the end of their operational lives. The process, known collectively as ‘decommissioning’, is undertaken across the oil and gas, nuclear and even nascent wind-power generation industries.
Each industry has its own particular decommissioning protocols and processes, but each one has at its heart, some form of requirement to remove the environmental threat posed by the particular asset, and in some cases return the relevant area to the state it was in before the industry became operational. The challenges faced by each of the terrestrial energy industries in some way mimic the difficulties currently faced by the space community: they operate in either an extreme environment (e.g. oil and gas rigs), with extreme materials (e.g. nuclear materials) or use experimental technology, and they also face lasting environmental consequences if asset decommissioning is not addressed.
Both the nuclear and the oil and gas sectors have very well-established decommissioning processes which are industries in themselves. In terms of oil and gas, the industries are in a transition phase, moving from the licensing and commissioning of facilities into the decommissioning era. All nations involved in these industries have bodies of regulation which vary as to the degree of prescription, depending on the jurisdiction concerned.
For example, oil and gas decommissioning in the UK is regulated by the Oil and Gas Authority which authorises and supervises the complete removal of installations and the return of leased sites to their natural condition (as required by the Petroleum Act 1998). In the case of the nuclear industry, the decommissioning process ensures that the power plant and associated materials are made safe to the point where they no longer require radiation protection measures to remain in place. The decommissioning of a nuclear power plant is, understandably, an incredibly detailed process which, in the UK, requires a licence from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Such a licence would only be issued following examination of safety reports, the preparation of a decommissioning plan, and some form of assessment of the environmental impact.
Astroscale’s CRD2 - ADRAS-J demonstration mission is developing the capability for a servicing satellite to acquire in-situ characterisation data of an identified piece of debris.
Lessons from Earth
There are clear lessons for the space community to learn from the development of decommis- sioning in the energy sector
Each of the aforementioned terrestrial industries has also had to confront the challenges posed in respect of their ‘legacy waste’, that is the pre-existing installations or materials that are not covered by existing decommissioning arrangements. For example, a significant part of the UK’s £73 billion nuclear decommissioning budget is being spent on cleaning up the legacy structures built when the nuclear power station near Sellafield, Cumbria, opened in 1956. Given that the Calder Hall station, as it was officially known, was closed down in March 2003 after 47 years of service, the long-term impact of such legacy structures is clear.
Similarly, ‘legacy space junk’, some of which also dates back to the 1950s, represents a potential danger to current space operations. If there is no action to deal with this, then it will exacerbate the challenges posed by the expansion of the orbital population when numerous satellites converge around valuable parts of Earth’s orbit. It would seem, therefore, that satellite decommissioning should both address the concerns around existing space debris and lay in place a future framework to prevent waste accruing as more satellites become operational.
Astroscale’s ELSA-d demonstration mission undergoing testing ahead of launch in March 2021.
Although there are international standards for terrestrial decommissioning, the legislative and regulatory focus is very much on national efforts by responsible nations. This model would transpose well into the space environment whereby nations which were liable for damage caused by their space objects, under Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty, could organise and license efforts to decommission the satellites for which they were responsible.
Benefit of hindsight
There are clear lessons for the space community to learn from the development of decommissioning in the energy sector. Although the situation in LEO is usually described in negative terms, there is cause for optimism as decommissioning can be viewed both as a process for environmental renewal and as a revenue-generating industry.
Indeed, the lack of direct legal mandate, either internationally or domestically, should not deter satellite operators. The terrestrial energy sector has suffered critical incidents, be it the existential threat posed by Chernobyl in the nuclear industry or the significant reputational damage caused to oil producers by the Brent Spar North Sea platform incident.
GEO satellites lose the ability to keep their orbits even when they are otherwise operational - Astroscale’s LEXI servicer will dock with and provide orbit-keeping and manoeuvring services.
When legislation is born out of crisis, government authorities tend to respond in a reactive, often knee-jerk fashion and, should this occur, the space industry could lose out on a valuable opportunity to shape the response.
The space community has seen what a collision in space looks like with the Iridium-Cosmos event. Now is the optimal time for all stakeholders to be proactive, heeding the warning signs from the orbital environment and learning the lessons from terrestrial industries before a catastrophic and expensive disaster in space occurs.
About the authors
Christopher Newman is Professor of Space Law & Policy at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He has been active in the teaching and research of space law for over two decades and has published extensively on the legal and ethical underpinnings of space governance. He co-edited the book Frontiers of Space Risk on the variety of risks involved in human space activity. He has recently worked with a consortium of space operators reporting to the UK Space Agency regarding changes to the orbital environment over the next 25 years and works closely with UK space industry.
Harriet Brettle is Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale, where she is working to develop commercial solutions to the threat of space debris. She is a co-founder of the London Space Network and co-chair of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), a global non-profit that supports students and young professionals to connect to the wider space industry. Harriet has a master’s in planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and previously worked in finance at the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She has a keen interest in public engagement with space science, interdisciplinary collaboration and the future of the NewSpace economy.
Luc H Riesbeck is a Space Policy and Research Analyst at Astroscale US, where they engage in collaboration across the space community to find solutions to orbital sustainability challenges. A recent graduate of the Space Policy Institute Master’s programme at George Washington University, their research interests include space sustainability, orbital debris mitigation and ethics in science and technology. Riesbeck also holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Science and a minor in Global China Studies from New York University Shanghai. In 2018, they were selected as a Fellow in the Brooke Owens Fellowship’s second annual class.