An AI-generated image of satellites encircling the globe in front of a kaleidoscopic sky. On the ground, hundreds of people use large TVs that are beamed a signal from above.
AI generated image, courtesy of the author.

In recent years, the concept of sustainability has transcended Earth’s environment, stretching its significance to the vast expanse of space. With the advent of satellites connecting directly to smartphones, the imperative for space sustainability is cast into a sharper focus, illuminating the intricate relationship between our technological advancements and the preservation of the cosmos. This development bridges the gap between space and the average person and underscores the urgent need for a sustainable approach to space exploration and utilization.

Space, once perceived as the final frontier distant from the daily lives of the average person, is now on the cusp of becoming an integral part. Recent regulatory framework approval for direct-to-smartphone satellite communication signifies a monumental shift.  We can now expect people to choose satellite services as they do mobile services, directly linking average consumers to the vast network of satellites orbiting our planet. This connection is not just a technological marvel. It’s a poignant reminder of our footprint in space.

The Salesforce 2022 “State of the Connected Consumer” survey reveals a compelling insight into consumer behavior, indicating that 75% of customers are influenced by the environmental practices of companies they frequent. In other words, sustainability is not just a preference but a decisive factor in consumer choices. Younger demographics, in particular, exhibit a willingness to invest in services that are both beneficial and sustainable. This shift in consumer priorities presents a unique opportunity for the space industry to align its operations with the principles of sustainability, emphasizing the need for responsible management of space resources and debris.

The direct connection of satellites to smartphones will undoubtedly make the concept of space sustainability more tangible to the general public. As individuals become more aware of the impact of human activities on Earth’s orbits, a collective drive to protect this environment is likely to emerge. Satellite operators, akin to their terrestrial telecom counterparts, will find themselves at a point where proving their commitment to sustainability becomes bothamoral obligation andbusiness imperative. The call for a net-zero debris industry and the demonstration of sustainable credentials will become paramount in maintaining public trust and support.

The urgency to address space sustainability is clear, and the path forward requires a proactive rather than reactive approach. The industry stands on the brink of a transformative era where setting sustainability standards, establishing achievement badges, and formalizing government incentives are not just strategic moves but necessary steps toward safeguarding the cosmos. The adoption of charters and commitments to minimize impact, coupled with the creation of a global fund for cleaning up legacy debris, can be the kind of forward-thinking needed to achieve a net-zero future.

As we navigate this pivotal moment, it is crucial for the space industry to adopt a stewardship role, recognizing its responsibility to future generations as well as the current one. The connection between satellites and smartphones does more than just provide a technological convenience; it serves as a constant reminder of our interconnectedness with space and the importance of preserving it. 

By embracing sustainability as a core principle, the space industry can lead by example and demonstrate that innovation and environmental stewardship can go hand in hand.

Matt Wills is CEO and cofounder of Sustain Space Ltd., a U.K. startup working to create a viable economic market for debris remediation through a global debris removal fund.

This article first appeared in the April 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Matt Wills is CEO and cofounder of Sustain Space Ltd., a startup working to create a viable economic market for debris remediation through a global debris removal fund. He has ten years of experience as an engineer in the defense and aerospace industry.