Addressing Space Sustainability in the New Space Age

Ensuring sustainable access to space is a shared responsibility.

Space sustainability

By John Janka, Global Chief Government Affairs and Regulatory Officer, Viasat

The New Space Age brings the promise innovative solutions for consumers, as well as for vital civic, scientific, defense, and security purposes.

The potential benefits for all of mankind are vast.

We also must recognize that human use of space is increasing at a meteoric pace.

  • In the last 5 years, the number of satellites in orbit has roughly doubled. In the next 5 years, a 10-fold increase is expected.
  • Sustaining just one of the LEO constellations being deployed today would require launching annually almost as many satellites as were launched during the entire first 60 years of the space age.

Much like natural resources here on Earth, there are only so many orbits around Earth and there is only so much spectrum available to employ in those orbits, all of which must be shared by the world and among different satellite technologies.

There also is only so much collision risk we can tolerate---risk that could lead to a runaway cascade of collisions that denies use of space to everyone for generations.

Indeed, rapidly over-developing LEO in the way that is occurring by a few actors today makes it more fragile and less available to others.

And there is only so much environmental impact we can tolerate from space activities, including light pollution and impact on the Earth’s atmosphere from the unavoidable re-entry of many thousands of LEO satellites a year.

While we historically have regulated use of space on a satellite-by-satellite and system-by-system basis, nature and physics do not make those artificial distinctions.

The consequences of over-crowding space can be addressed only after taking into account the aggregate of all human activities in space.

If we do not manage the total impact of all objects and activities in space, we cannot manage space sustainability and the resulting risks and harms.

Individual systems must be evaluated, not in isolation, but by considering the proportion of finite and shared resources they consume, to the detriment of all others.

We must develop ways to manage use of those resources, including ensuring we use space efficiently, and in a sustainable manner, and creating incentives to develop new technologies to allow us to do “more with less,” as we have learned to do here on Earth.

We also must recognize that powerful economic incentives exist for some to capture access to those shared resources and make it more difficult, if not impossible, for others to enjoy them.

As on Earth, the space environment can be harmed disproportionately by a small number of actors that undermine the good behavior of others. And in space, a few commercial systems are consuming the greatest proportion of limited resources.

We must therefore develop incentives to encourage good and responsible behavior, while also adopting suitable checks and balances to ensure a few do not spoil things for everyone else.

Many will show restraint and respect for the portion of limited global resources their LEO constellations consume.

And we should encourage that kind of responsible and sustainable behavior.

But merely encouraging responsible behavior will not be sufficient.

We also must protect against those motivated to consume excessive resources, creating greater shared risk to all.

So, what must we do?

Individual nations, must do their part when it comes to space sustainability, and that includes recognizing, as some nations do already, that they can ensure that both their national and global policy goals are met by requiring that anyone who seeks to benefit from providing satellite services to their territories:

  • Plays by the same rules as everyone else,
  • Does not overconsume shared orbits and spectrum resources, and
  • Does not cause undue harm.

That must be accomplished by regulating at the market access stage. Addressing matters only at the launch licensing stage would encourage forum shopping for the jurisdiction that applies the least oversight to space.

In this way, like-minded nations can lead the way for the rest of the world and set a new standard for responsible behavior by everyone.

Many of these concepts are acknowledged in the statement signed by 120 entities in early July as part of the Earth ∞ Space Sustainability Initiative, including many leading satellite operators.

We now have a wide-ranging group from industry:

  • Acknowledging there is an imminent challenge surrounding our shared and finite space resources,
  • Endorsing the need to manage the situation with incentive-based market access regulation, and
  • Recognizing the need to do so by considering the collective impact of human activity in space (not just individual satellites and constellations).

This is a vital first step toward developing admittance controls and other appropriate regulations that constrain harm and ensure continued and sustainable access to space---not just for a few well-funded entrants today---but rather for all.