MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The space industry need to take a broader examination of issues related to space sustainability that go beyond preventing the growth of space debris, one official says.

Speaking at the SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 6, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department, said there is a need to define a set of “internationally accepted” actions to address issues that range from orbital debris to protecting night skies from satellite interference.

“Usually, when people say ‘sustainability,’ they think space junk, but sustainability is much, much more,” he said. “As tens of thousands of new satellites are launched, space sustainability is going to be a bigger and bigger issue.”

Space traffic coordination is one key issue, he said, but noted it extends to sharing of space situational awareness data as well as potential requirements that satellites have some ability to maneuver to avoid potential collisions. It also covers efficient use of orbits and equity concerns to ensure developing nations are not denied the use of low Earth orbit as it fills with satellite constellations.

Other space sustainability issues include what is known as “dark and quiet skies,” or efforts to minimize the interference to optical and radio astronomy caused by satellites. In addition, there is the need to find ways to protect human heritage in space, he said. “If you want to do a rover that goes to the moon, do you have the right to run over Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon? I think probably not.”

He also cited environmental concerns about space activities, such as plumes from launches as well as satellite reentries that may be affecting the chemistry of the upper atmosphere, as well as risks of falling debris.

“These will become huge issues in the future, and we need to be talking about them now and working on solutions now,” DalBello. Those solutions, he said, will require international cooperation.

“The question is, is there a set of internationally accepted responsible actions, are there things that all nations should require operators to do?” he asked.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is taking one step in that effort. At its Radio Assembly 2023, held just before the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), members approved a resolution to study space sustainability issues.

“Normally, we are addressing spectrum only, but obviously there was a need to link this to sustainability as a whole,” said Jorge Ciccorossi, acting head of the Space Systems Coordination Division of the ITU, during another SmallSat Symposium panel, calling the passage of the resolution one of the “big achievements” of the WRC and Radio Assembly meetings.

The resolution is focused on strategies for post-mission disposal of satellites after the end of their missions. Ciccorossi said the ITU will be asking industry and governments for their best practices and strategies for post-mission disposal, which will be shared publicly.

While guidelines from the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee call for deorbiting satellites with 25 years of the end of their lives, national implementations of that recommendation vary widely. “Right now we have a fragmented approach depending on the country and the sector,” he said. “Perhaps we need to have a more harmonized approach.”

That effort initially will focus on a handbook and compendium of information on the issue, said George John, senior associate at Hogan Lovells. “Maybe that leads to future action thereafter, but we’ll see.”

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...