Our position on sustainable space
We strongly advocate for careful resource management through effective regulation as the use of LEO is exponentially increasing and lacking the active oversight that is needed to ensure the entire world can benefit from the use of space’s scarce natural resources. Without suitable rules in place that control how we access and share those resources, we risk having a few operators fill space to the point of making it inaccessible for many new applications around the world, rendering space unavailable for generations to come, and damaging the environment here on Earth.
The space sustainability issue
Space is a limited and shared natural resource that needs careful stewardship, like other precious natural resources on Earth. Space sustainability depends on understanding and working within the constraints associated with each form of harm associated with misuse of those resources. LEO needs particular attention because it is the area where most satellites are now being launched, and we risk saturating the capacity of those orbits within this decade. Doing so would lead to:
› Dramatically increasing the risk of collisions that can disable or destroy the critical satellite infrastructure we rely on every day — and even affect other satellites far away from the point of impact
› Overfilling LEO to the point where space is closed to new and innovative applications
› Making space more fragile, such that intentional or unintentional actions that damage the environment have far-reaching consequences on everyone
› Harming the environment, notably increasing light pollution and damaging the atmosphere
If we ignore these threats, we face an imminent risk of space no longer being available to everyone for science, exploration, monitoring climate change, security, communications, and other commercial, defense and civic purposes
To address these pressing issues, we’re prioritizing and acting in three key areas:
1. Space safety: Ensuring safe and sustainable access to critical orbits for all purposes
The vastly increasing number of larger and larger objects in LEO is one of the most pressing threats to the safety and sustainability of space. Filling orbits beyond their carrying capacity (a term indicating how much is too much when considering the aggregate impact of all space objects in an orbital region like LEO) significantly raises collision risks and even risks a “Kessler Syndrome” — a cascading chain reaction of collisions that experts warn could make space unusable and inaccessible for decades, or even centuries, to come.
2. Equitable access: Keeping space accessible for innovation and new applications
Given the increasing number of satellites proposed and launched, there’s a growing risk of the tragedy of the commons, in which individuals use a public resource for their own interests and deplete it, preventing its use by others. Much like the way we manage air traffic, the way space is accessed and used must be managed to ensure that LEO remains open and available for all to share, so everyone can enjoy the myriad benefits and development of new and innovative applications that access to space provides. To do that, there’s a critical need for admittance control and economic incentives that compel all space players to operate in a way that’s responsible, transparent, and collaborative, so everyone can share limited spectrum and orbital resources.
3. Environmental impact: Protecting the finite and fragile nature of the shared LEO resource, and preventing over-exploitation
The environmental dangers of unchecked mega constellation launches in LEO include the potential for large quantities of satellites reentering the atmosphere to damage the Earth’s atmosphere and affect climate change through, among other things, radiative forcing, depletion of the ozone layer, increasing the risk of cancer and other negative health effects, impairing critical optical and radio astronomical research by disrupting the visible night sky, creating light pollution with the resulting negative impacts on the health and quality of life of humans and on plants and animals, and impairing the functioning of critical asteroid detection and defense capabilities. Certain choices made in LEO system design are the dominant factors affecting these impacts, such as satellite cross-sectional area, mass, orbit, and number of satellites, along with reflectivity and material composition.
In FY23, we co-authored a research study titled, “LEO Capacity Modeling for Sustainable Design,” that addresses sustainable satellite population distribution in LEO and develops a model that is useful to: assist in the design of sustainable broadband LEO systems; assess the impact of existing and planned LEO systems; understand the implications of multiple large LEO constellations occupying neighboring or overlapping orbits; and measure the absolute and relative effectiveness of candidate regulations and policies governing space access and operations. We continue to refine that model in consultation with leading academics and research institutions.
Viasat also continues to contribute to the research that helps us all understand the impact of the equitable access issue. In our white paper, “Ensuring Innovation and Growth Opportunities in the New Space Age,” we call out how innovative LEO system designs can deliver better service, ensure greater space sustainability, and allow all nations to participate in the New Space economy. That paper helps policymakers and concerned citizens understand: what opportunities will remain available for innovation and growth if we stay on the current path; how we can maximize those opportunities by managing the use of LEO (much like we manage other shared resources); and how we can facilitate geo-political stability by not allowing a few nations to consume undue portions of the world’s limited resources to the exclusion of others. Most significantly, Viasat prioritizes sustainable design. With our satellites, we always aim to minimize their footprint and form factors while still making them more than capable of delivering maximum positive impact to people, society, and the environment.
Viasat’s commitment to sustainable pace
> We’re working with industries and governments around the world to develop effective rules and policies to keep space safe and accessible for everyone.
> We’re working with experts around the world to quantify the carrying capacity of LEO to help frame effective rules and policies and facilitate sustainable satellite system designs.
>We’re developing and deploying more sustainable satellites. The European Space Agency (ESA) recently co-funded Viasat to prove out the concept of smaller, more efficient, and more capable LEO satellites. We are currently co-investing with ESA on the project, named Project Green, to develop more sustainable LEO satellite designs.
Learn more about how Viasat is always finding a better way to connect the world. Safely, sustainably, and ethically in our 2023 ESG report.