WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency and three European satellite manufacturers have announced plans to work together to develop “ambitious and meaningful targets” for dealing with orbital debris.
At an event during the Paris Air Show June 22, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and executives with Airbus Defence and Space, OHB and Thales Alenia Space said they would jointly develop a “Zero Debris Charter” with the overarching goal of preventing the creation of new debris, particularly in low Earth orbit.
“The principle is a very simple one,” he said. “The Zero Debris Charter is a principle where we would like to ensure that there is zero debris left behind in space.”
Details backing that principle will be worked out by ESA and the companies later this year, according to an ESA statement. That included developing “ambitious and meaningful targets to be achieved by 2030” and including them in the text of the charter by the end of the year.
Aschbacher said that goal is that, by 2030, those who agree to abide by the charter will deorbit their satellites at the end of their lives or contract with companies that provide active debris removal services to deorbit them.
Executives at the event said they were increasingly worried that runaway growth of orbital debris, sometimes called the Kessler Syndrome, was already taking place in some congested orbits. “This keeps me awake at night because it is my business, it’s our business,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space. “It’s not acceptable.”
Lutz Bertling, a member of the board of OHB, said he talked with an unidentified European astronaut who was concerned human spaceflight might not be feasible beyond the 2030s because of the risks posed by increasing debris. “Those are alarming words to me.”
The charter, when it is developed, will be nonbinding, but advocates said they hope it could be incorporated in some way into future regulations. “We need to achieve a status where we demand that only data or information is bought from those satellite providers who are adhering to certain standards,” Aschbacher said. “The charter may be one vehicle for doing so.”
The charter has parallels to another nonbinding instrument, a new set of debris mitigation recommendations published by the World Economic Forum June 13. Those guidelines set new benchmarks for the success rates and timelines of post-mission disposal of satellites, among other recommendations, and were endorsed by 27 companies that include Airbus, OHB and Thales.
“It is an interesting approach because there are specific recommendations,” said Hervé Derrey, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, of that document.
But he and others acknowledged that the charter is only a step towards eventual binding international regulations to minimize the creation of orbital debris. “Europe has to lead the way,” Derrey said, but added that without international rules a European-led charter will do little to solve the debris problem. “On top of that, European industry will not be on a level playing field with its competitors.”
One issue with international regulation is the slow pace of its development, particularly within United Nations organizations. “This is certainly a big question, but we are absolutely at a stage were we do need some international regulation or international adherence,” Aschbacher said, noting that the charter’s own goal of zero-debris rules in place by the end of the decade might be too slow to some.
“Some big nations, some big players, they simply don’t care,” Bertling said, not identifying any of the organizations that don’t care about debris mitigation policies. “Only with a real international regulation will we get it under control.”