TAMPA, Fla. — A lack of data and collaboration continues to hold back efforts to ensure a sustainable orbital environment, satellite operator executives said June 13.
“We’re trying our best to advance the science and the awareness so that prudent policy decisions could be made by regulators and other influencers,” John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer of government and regulatory affairs, said during the 5th Summit for Space Sustainability in New York.
Limited space resources are being consumed “at an alarming rate,” he warned, “and we could go from there being virtually no problem a few years ago to being at saturation by the end of this decade.”
Janka did not name satellite broadband rival Starlink, which has more than 4,000 satellites in its rapidly expanding low Earth orbit constellation, but said Viasat is supporting the development of “carrying capacity” models to help regulators determine how many satellites are too many.
After recently completing its acquisition of British operator Inmarsat, U.S.-based Viasat operates 19 satellites in geostationary orbit.
Janka said improving modeling data would also be important for assessing the efficacy of various remediations and mitigations proposed to tackle the risk of debris-causing collisions, spectrum interference, and other orbital congestion concerns.
“So rather than just accept blind faith that we should do the following to fix the problem in space, we’re looking for empirical models that let us take a proposition, run it through the model, and see if it really works,” he said.
Models for assessing in-orbit collision risks have advanced significantly in the last few years, according to Janka, who said experts worldwide are beginning to converge on best practices in this area.
However, he called for more input from astronomers to understand the impact of satellite light pollution on their measurements.
Even less is known about the environmental impact of record numbers of satellites burning up in the atmosphere following the end of their operational lives.
To improve its own sustainability credentials, Amber Ledgerwood, senior manager for social and environmental impact at SES, said the operator is working on “life cycle assessments” — methodologies for measuring the environmental impacts of a product through all stages of creation and distribution.
Ledgerwood said SES is compiling data to assess the impact launching a satellite has across the manufacturing and launch segments, in addition to the space and ground segments.
“I think starting there and starting to gather some data is a starting point,” she said, “but there could definitely be more collaboration around the metrics that we use as an industry” to paint a more accurate picture of the sector’s impact on the space and terrestrial environment.
Although SES, Viasat, and a growing number of other space companies have started voluntarily reporting non-financial environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data, there is currently no consensus in the industry on standards or the metrics they should track.
Shareholders are increasingly asking publicly listed SES about its ESG metrics and goals, Ledgerwood added.
“Generally speaking, it is a transformation journey,” she said, “and so they understand when we can give them an action plan versus an actual answer, but the expectation is that that will be different in the future, and we will need to be able to answer their questions.”
SES is based in Luxembourg and faces more mandatory sustainability disclosures under Europe’s incoming Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is also working on rules for mandating certain climate-related disclosures for publicly listed companies in the United States.
When it comes to space sustainability, Viasat’s Janka said: “Best practices are great but everyone’s not going to honor them, so we need something more than soft commitments — we need a little bit of a stick.”
Developing orbital debris clean-up capabilities and improving space traffic management and situational awareness is important, he added, but more is needed to ensure a safe orbital environment.