Sustainability in Space

Since the first time a human made object orbited the earth in 1957, thousands of objects have been launched to space. Space activities are now performed from Low Earth Orbit to Geostationary Orbit and extend their activities further away into other bodies of the Solar System.

Nowadays, the growing number of space launches and our dependency to space keeps increasing and active spacecraft cohabitate with anthropogenic space debris that threatens both the safety of the ongoing operations and the future access to space and their socioeconomic benefits. The technological evolution is driving an increase in the variety of actors, both national and private, involved in space activities and the crowding of specific areas in space leads towards potential physical and electromagnetic interference.

Monthly number of objects in Earth orbit by object type. Source: NASA

Debris generated during operations, accidental fracture, accidental collision, unsustainable practices and intentional anti-satellite weaponry tests contribute to the growing increase of the threats posed to operations. Ensuring the availability of space for future generations and the access to space of emerging countries still developing space capabilities is not only a technological problem, but will require legal instruments, coordination fora and political will.

The congestion in orbit, reinforced by the growth of the so called mega-constellations, will require to foster coordination strategies to increase the space situational awareness capabilities. Incoming years will bring the debate on the need for space traffic coordination or, at least, norms of the road to substitute them. Basic sustainability rules like ensuring satellites in Low Earth Orbit are deorbited in 25 years are becoming common and even reviewed to tighten their objectives, however, the barriers for enforcement will require combined and multilateral efforts to keep orbital access available.

During its history, UN COPUOS has led the way to develop the corpus of space law, including the five treaties and guidelines for Long Term Sustainability and Space Debris mitigation. The current political scenario makes it difficult to predict whether new legally binding instruments will be agreed in the short term future. In a political moment when the time for treaties looks passed and makes way for national space law come to center stage, UNIDIR is currently taking over the UN mandate to perform conversations that may lead to an advancement in the development of norms that reduce the threads of a naturally harsh environment like is space and that both commercial and public entities crave for. The current conversation potentially sets a stage that paves the way for future non-legally and legally binding instruments or multilateral agreements. The recent unilateral moratoria announced by several countries in the execution of destructive anti-satellite activities show the interest of taking steps towards a more sustainable use of space. 

But why should we worry about space with more urgent problems? Preserving the space environment for its use in the future is instrumental given that space enables technologies that support achieving all 17 Sustainable Development goals and, moreover, we should pursue the preservation and use of space, understanding it as an extension of the environment in which we live, not as a separate reality.

Distribution of space debris around Earth. Source: ESA