News & Media

Space Matters: Sustainability in Space

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Space Matters invites speakers from different backgrounds in the space community to discuss trending space topics. The most recent “Space Matters” session was held August 4, 2022. The session, introduced by Symposium 365 Senior Vice President Thomas Dorame, served to:

  • Bring rich and candid discussion with space policy experts
  • Discuss emerging issues and trends across the space community
  • Maintain a routine high-level space policy conversation

While Space Matters sessions typically invite panelists to discuss three trending issues in space, this specific session revolved around space sustainability and its current implications.

Defining Sustainability in Space

Symposium 365 Speakers

The Honorable Robert (Bob) Walker, CEO of Moon Walker Associates and former Chairman of the US House of Representatives Science Committee, kicked off the session by sharing his definition of sustainable space activity.

“[Space sustainability] is the ability to access and use space reliably and safely and to conduct space activities in a responsible and responsive way,” Walker said.

Carissa Christensen, CEO and Founder of BryceTech, shared that sustainability in space is a multifaceted issue. When there are conversations about sustainability in space, it’s useful to be clear about which aspect of sustainability you’re talking about.

“For example, I think that one very interesting topic that is very compelling to many people is the ability of space capabilities to assist with sustainability on Earth,” Christensen said, “whether that is economic sustainability or very often environmental sustainability. Satellites define many of the metrics we use to measure climate change; they help us understand Earth as a system.”

Christensen added that sustainability topics in space could also include how terrestrial activity affects space sustainability.

The Honorable James Bridenstine, Senior Advisor of Acorn Growth Companies and former NASA Administrator, noted specific policies that help contribute to this conversation.

“Space Policy Directive One, which came out in 2017, says that we’re going to go to the Moon sustainably,” Bridenstine said. This could suggest a permanent human presence on the Moon, a presence with humans and robots, or access to the Moon whenever needed for research. There are a variety of ways to think about sustainability when it comes to accessing the Moon.

Sustainability is also a vital conversation when considering advancing research on Mars. Mars and Earth are only on the same side of the Sun every 26 months; it’s a long mission that we only get the chance to make every two years. Preparing for the mission by spending time on the Moon and applying lessons learned is essential. We must learn how to interact with elements of space, such as the Moon, sustainably if we are to succeed on Mars.

Patricia Cooper, President & Founder of Constellation Advisory LLC, shared that it’s important to define expectations, such as policies or regulations, to hold all space players to the same sustainability standard. She mentioned the importance of ensuring that every action in space is mindful of potential space activities, whether in orbit or on the ground.

Threats To Sustainability In Space

Walker shared how some individuals used to view space as a large arena, but now with more activity in space than ever, space seems far smaller than before.

“Space is just busier,” Christensen observed. “There are more spacecraft in orbit, and newer formats that spacecraft can come in. Less than a decade ago there were 1,000 active satellites. Now there are 5,000, with companies planning on launching tens of thousands.”

Cooper shared a startling statistic from the Space Foundation Q2 report that stated a “record pace of successful launches from January 1 to June 30, with 72 rockets inserting 1,022 identified spacecraft into space.”

One of the biggest issues, Christensen said, is that the objects being launched into space are far smaller and less easy to track. In the best of circumstances, with everyone playing a responsible part, we still face growing risks.

“There are sub-optimal actors,” Christensen said. There is no standard of responsible action that every group in space follows.

In order to combat this issue, there needs to be some form of policy, legislation, or commitment by both the public and private sectors to mitigate the growing amount of debris in space. In this new era of space, foreign threats have been a topic of conversation, but according to Bridenstine, irresponsible behavior is likely the most imminent threat we face.

Bridenstine shared that out of 15,000 satellites, the FCC anticipates that 1.5% are derelict or can’t be pulled out of orbit. That’s 225 satellites that are anticipated to be large amounts of orbital debris. This merely accounts for satellites that are expected to be derelict; the actual number will likely be higher.

“The FCC anticipates that there is a 1 in 44 chance that those satellites will have a collision, which is a very high probability when you consider the implications of a collision,” Bridenstine said. “That doesn’t include the 14,775 satellites that are not derelict and can maneuver.”

Bridenstine shared that the risk is ultimately undefined, as this is for one constellation from one country. With so many countries releasing constellations, the problem can feel unsolvable.

Nations need to come together and establish a plan to prevent this issue from spiraling out of control. Developing a plan would also include setting up rules and regulations that everyone must adhere to.

Stay Up To Date On Important Space Policy Discussions

Space Sustainability is an ever-changing discussion. If you would like to stay informed on trending topics in the space community, Symposium365 has a variety of resources available.

Symposium 365 provides ongoing education and conversation about important events, people and projects in the space community. In addition to the “Space Matters” series, Symposium 365 produces valuable programs, including “State of Space” and “Start Here for Space.” Explore and register for upcoming events here.