Space debris (ESA photo)

WASHINGTON — The World Economic Forum (WEF) has selected a consortium of companies, universities and agencies to develop a system to rate the sustainability of space systems, one that its backers hope will encourage good behavior in space.

WEF announced May 6 that a team from the European Space Agency, together with one led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, will work on development of a Space Sustainability Rating, a metric that will define how well an individual satellite, or satellite system, follows guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of space.

Backers of the proposed rating system, appearing on a panel at the Satellite 2019 conference here May 6, said they believed satellite operators would support a voluntary rating process to demonstrate their desire to be good stewards of space amid concerns about the growing population of orbital debris.

“The space industry is going through change. It’s growing. There’s a lot of disruption,” said Ruy Pinto, chief technology officer of satellite operator SES. “I see initiatives like creating a space sustainability index for what is a scarce resource, space, as a sign of maturity.”

Bruce Chesley, senior director of strategy at Boeing Space and Launch, also welcomed the new rating initiative as way to encourage operators to accept the economic costs associated with such measures as end-of-life deorbiting of satellites. “Incentivizing everyone to operate in a similar and sustainable way will prevent any unfair advantage from a market point of view,” he said.

Backers envision the Space Sustainability Rating to be similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) systems that rates the energy efficiency of buildings. However, those involved with the project said they still have to figure out what will go into the rating system or even what sort of scoring system — a numeric score, stars or colors — will be used.

“Right now there are so many different definitions of space sustainability,” said Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a research engineer at the MIT Media Lab involved in the project. “We really see the value of making a point of reference for space sustainability.” She said that the MIT team, which includes Bryce Space and Technology and the University of Texas at Austin, can provide a neutral perspective to help shape that definition.

The rating system will make use of publicly available data, avoiding issues such as access to proprietary or export-controlled information, provided by satellite operators and manufacturers through a questionnaire. “What we’re hoping to do is put together an unbiased mathematical model that will take this questionnaire and put a rating” on a satellite, she said.

Rathnasabapathy said the consortium, working with the WEF, will likely hold a series of workshops to gather input from potential users of the rating system. There will be a particular emphasis, she said, on gathering input from a wide range of countries. “We want this to be accepted on an international basis,” she said. “It shouldn’t be seen as a U.S. initiative or a European initiative.”

That consultative process will take time. Nikolai Khlystov, lead for aerospace industry at the WEF, said after the session that he hopes to begin beta testing of the rating system next year with a number of satellite companies. A final version may be ready in about two years. Also up for discussion, he said, is what organization will serve as the host of the Space Sustainability Rating system once it’s operational.

While a good score on any rating system might provide intangible benefits, near-term financial ones might be harder to quantify. Jan Schmidt, head of space at insurer Swiss Re, supported the development of the rating. But, he added, “I don’t think we have the room at the moment to give straightaway a discount to everyone who’s participating in it.”

However, he said good behavior that could be encouraged by the rating system may lead to a reduction in insurance claims on satellites, which could lower premiums. “I think there will be incentives, even if they’re not measurable in dollars in the first place.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...