Op-ed | Maintaining healthy orbital neighborhoods

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As millions across the globe adjust to a new way of living and working, separated from family, friends and co-workers, our reliance on satellite services for connectivity and data has become even more critical. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear the consequences of being ill-prepared and failing to take preventive measures, despite warnings from experts about the inevitability of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, a similar scenario is playing out in space. As orbits become more densely populated, and conjunctions and near misses more likely, we need to act now to protect space assets and their orbital neighborhoods.

Orbital neighborhoods – from LEO to MEO to GEO – are changing. Once the purview of government agencies and multinational telecom corporations, orbital regimes are going through a period of uncertainty and transition. Large constellations, falling launch and satellite development costs, and innovative concepts in technology and service are changing how these “neighborhoods” are being used and the way in which they bring benefits to the global population. In order to protect this environment from an epidemic, we must advance the technical standards and policy initiatives that support this growth.

KEEP OUR ORBITAL NEIGHBORHOOD CLEAN

As with any new development, numerous adjacent services are sprouting up to provide support to the satellite residents in these orbital communities. Astroscale and our colleagues in other visionary space companies are already beginning to take the necessary steps to provide the logistical support for these increased activities. We expect there to be a bustling ecosystem that is not dissimilar to a growing community here on Earth. It will include long-haul transportation with dedicated launch vehicles, taxi rides offering delta-V to get between inclinations and orbits, commercial space station hotels and research facilities housing humans at work and play, and foundries providing in-orbit manufacturing. These new communities will need typical support services such as utilities, gas stations, garbage collection and repair services, to name a few.

Astroscale is a proud member of this new space neighborhood, hard at work advancing technologies, behaviors, and, of course, the business case that drives several of these innovative areas. In this new space community, it is necessary to think through the promotion and practice of orbital waste management to ensure sustainable growth of the space sector. A balance must be struck between unchecked freedom and stifling regulation in the pursuit of new opportunities for advancing technology and democratizing information. We must grow the space community in a manner that protects our orbital natural resource. It’s a simple choice: maintain the status quo and risk a debris calamity, or start to protect, mitigate and manage the environment. One path leaves us operating in an environment of constant concern and uncertainty and the other builds a thriving and prosperous orbital community.

We have been here before — terrestrially — and are learning the lessons of sustainability on Earth. Corporations are seeing the economic and societal value of sustainable communities — not just for environmental responsibility and the benefit of future generations, but for the near-term bottom line. Companies do not focus on environmental sustainability as a nice-to-have cost center for corporate social responsibility; it is a necessity for steady business growth and economic viability.

AWARENESS OF DEBRIS RISKS ARE GROWING

We still have a long way to go before we reach an equivalent level of environmental preparedness in orbit.

The bad news: Though we have not even really begun to launch the bulk of assets that will be put into orbit over the next decade, the number of conjunctions and near misses continues to grow. As the capability and interest in space situational awareness increases, our eyes are being opened to the incredible risk of a crowded and unpredictable orbital environment. Most concerning is the number of debris-on-debris near misses that are more prevalent. Whether those near misses were always happening and we were just blissfully ignorant before the advent of better SSA and transparency, or this is truly an uptick in frequency, is irrelevant. It is only a matter of time before one of these near misses becomes more than just a close call that we casually discuss at conferences, and instead becomes a collision that has irrevocably altered how we live and work on Earth and in our orbital neighborhood.

The good news: Operators and policymakers recognize that a collision would be disastrous for our nascent community and seriously hinder future economic growth. We are starting to see a growing level of awareness around solving the technical and policy challenges that will need to be addressed in order to create a sustainable market. Space situational awareness products and services are being refined to serve the new orbital neighborhood. Technologies like RFID tags and drag sails are being tested to support identification and hasten deorbit time frames. And, there are now several concepts and demonstrations of remediation technology. Later this year, Astroscale will conduct the first fully commercial debris removal demonstration with our ELSA-d mission.

The End-of-Life Service by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission, planned for 2020, aims to grab a piece of space debris and dispose of it in the atmosphere. Credit: Astroscale via Flickr

Industry is also starting to coalesce around needed practices that go above regulatory and international minimum guidelines. The Consortium for Execution and Rendezvous of Servicing Operations (CONFERS), an industry-led group consisting of company representatives from around the world that are practicing rendezvous and proximity operations, has been driving the conversation on best practices and standards for future orbital activities since the summer of 2018. The Space Safety Coalition announced in 2019 a set of best practices for the sustainability of space operations that included, for example, recommendations for exchanging information and increasing successful disposal after the end of mission. The coalition has also set a goal for operators with propulsion years of end of mission, as compared to the international guideline of 25 years.

Governments and international organizations, too, are starting to take action to build a modern, sustainable, and global orbital neighborhood. Last year, the UN COPUOS’ long-term sustainability guidelines were officially adopted to help ensure the long-term sustainable use of outer space and debris mitigation standards were updated in the International Standards Organization. Individual states are also taking steps to implement stronger regulations. The United States developed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) in 2019 which has led to updated Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices. Japan is advocating updates to space debris mitigation policies and the new European Operations Framework/Peraspera is developing recommendations on regulations, licensing and standards for in-orbit servicing. From a technical and policy perspective the world is taking notice of orbital sustainability — and taking action.

MOVING FORWARD, SUSTAINABLY

All of these efforts are contributing to the maintenance of healthy and prosperous orbits. As we consider our future efforts to be good orbital neighbors, we should implement three key actions: Prepare, Repair and Remove.

1. Prepare – Integrating simple design changes prior to launch, like adding a grapple fixture or docking plate, make it easier (and thus less risky and expensive) to conduct servicing missions. OneWeb set the standard for responsible utilization of our orbital environment by including docking mechanisms on all of the satellites it launched, with plans to include a different mechanism on all future launches. The news about OneWeb’s uncertain future should not diminish the important example it was setting for orbital sustainability.

2. Repair — The space community now has more options at hand to service and keep healthy orbital investments. In February 2020, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) docked with Intelsat-901, the first docking of two satellites in GEO and the first time anywhere that this happened with a satellite that was not previously designed for a docking. This is not a one-time event — MEV-2 is scheduled to launch in mid-2020 and several other companies are vying to get into the GEO servicing market.

3. Remove — We must think seriously about remediating the space environment of the most dangerous and massive pieces of space junk. In the last few months, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and European Space Agency both announced missions focused on the eventual removal of a piece of existing debris from orbit. In each case companies have been selected, Astroscale in the former and ClearSpace in the later, to take the first steps toward groundbreaking missions that would actively deorbit a large piece of debris in the next several years.

It is an honor to be a part of an industry that is continuing to connect the world, supporting society and essential operations during this critical time. The importance of prevention has never been more apparent. The benefits of satellites in Earth’s orbit are clear, but the risks of debris are real. Let’s expedite the development of the technology and policies that will encourage us to prepare our satellites for servicing before launch, repair them when possible and remove them when no longer useful. Our orbital neighborhoods are too precious of a resource to ignore and these steps are necessary to safeguard this industry’s future.


Chris Blackerby is group COO of Astroscale Holdings and director of Astroscale Japan.

This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.