Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg became a household name in 2018 when her speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference touched off student strikes around the world.
Thunberg singlehandedly drew so much attention to climate change that speakers wondered aloud at the Summit for Space Sustainability in June whether they needed a similarly impassioned advocate.
“We saw what Greta Thunberg did for the climate change debate,” Rebecca Everden, space director in the U.K. Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said at the New York event. “We need a Greta for space sustainability. If somebody out there wants to be Greta, please stand up.”
It’s unlikely that the space sector will find anyone quite like Thunberg, who was 15 when she began weekly protests outside the Swedish parliament. Plus, Thunberg “is unusually sharp and articulate for her age and she focuses her message on our responsibility,” Luc Piquet, CEO of Swiss orbital debris removal startup ClearSpace, said by email.
Still, there are young professionals in the space sector who are passionate about sustainability.
“Sustainability of space itself and also sustainability of the planet,” said Charles Beames, chairman of the SmallSat Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
They understand “that space is an environment we are building and there is a chance to do it the right way,” LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley said by email. “There is a lot of interest in the topics of space debris, safety, sustainability and the Kessler Syndrome. It does motivate people entering the workforce today.”
A PASSION FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Rebeca Griego, for example, was a high school student when she came across a five-minute video about space debris.
“I was just amazed by it,” Griego said. “I was like, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?’”
Griego became focused on the space sector after learning as a high school freshman about Mexican-American astronaut José Hernández. Hernandez, a child of migrant farm workers like Griego, grew up in Stockton, California, a couple of hours from Griego’s Woodland, California, home.
“That was my hook into thinking space was something I could do,” Griego said.
Griego went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from California State University, Long Beach.
During a 2020 internship at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Orbital Debris Program Office, Griego helped track space launches, satellite maneuvers and debris. That experience combined with independent research she performed as a McNair Scholar on orbital debris with California Polytechnic State University professor Kira Abercromby convinced her, “I can actually do something about the issue.” (The McNair scholars program prepares undergraduate students from low-income, first-generation and underrepresented backgrounds for Ph.D. programs.)
Another internship with the Education Department in Washington, opened Griego’s eyes to the complexity of space sustainability.
“It’s not just an engineering issue,” Griego said. “It’s so much more of the policy and the business case. We can put our heads together and work on a servicer that could help solve this issue. But it’s really closing that business case and then ensuring that we have the rules of the road and the laws to make sure that we’re moving in that more sustainable way.”
Two weeks after graduating from Cal State Long Beach in 2021, Griego became a systems engineer at Astroscale U.S., where she is helping with assembly, integration and testing of Life Extension In-orbit, LEXI, and researching active debris removal opportunities. Griego also is working on a master’s degree in aviation and aerospace sustainability from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
“I still have so much to learn,” Griego said. “A lot of people have been working on the sustainability issue for a long time. My passion, though, continues. I don’t see myself working outside space sustainability.”
TAKING IT TO THE GROUND
Emily Cox, a ClearSpace systems and mechanical associate engineer, began thinking about space sustainability while writing a dissertation on spin-deployed drag sails in low-Earth orbit at England’s University of Manchester.
“From that, I became interested in sustainability and the problem of space debris,” Cox said.
Her interest led to an internship at ClearSpace and a master’s in astronautics and space engineering from Cranfield University in England.
Cox now works on active debris removal projects, including ClearSpace-1, a European Space Agency-funded project to deorbit a Vega Secondary Payload Adapter, and Encore, a European vehicle to lengthen satellite lifespans.
“At the moment, I’m working on developing a test for the capture system to make sure we don’t develop any more debris when we capture the client,” Cox said.
Cox sees space sustainability as a multifaceted issue that encompasses terrestrial manufacturing, launch emissions and rocket pollution in the stratosphere.
“It’s important to look not just at the sustainable use of space through active debris removal and in-orbit servicing, but to take sustainability to ground level,” Cox said. “We care about preserving our planet, making sure we are in balance with the environment and we’re not damaging it. That’s exactly why sustainability in spaces is important.”
EQUITABLE RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
LeoLabs senior business analyst Erin Dale also underscores the connection between Earth and space sustainability.
Earlier in her career, Dale’s work focused on the societal benefit of Earth observations. Satellite data was a key input, for instance, in a model Dale helped create to warn communities of impending malaria epidemics.
At LeoLabs, a Silicon Valley company that operates a network of phased array radars to track objects in low-Earth orbit, Dale has a front-row view of the massive growth of space activity.
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 15, 2023, around 1,800 spacecraft were sent into low-Earth orbit. For comparison, there were only 1,200 operational satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2019.
“We’ve more than doubled that in less than eight months,” Dale said.
LeoLabs offers services for satellite operators, insurers and regulators seeking to understand, for example, the probability of collision for specific orbits.
“And on the remediation side, we identify dangerous objects and dangerous orbits in a quantifiable manner to help drive decision making,” Dale said.
Warnings of potential collisions are particularly important, given the increase in space activity.
At this “exponential knee in the curve,” it’s worth considering the lessons learned from managing Earth’s resources, said Dale, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering science at the University of Virginia and a master’s from George Mason University in environmental science and policy.
Like fisheries and terrestrial mining, “space is a resource that needs to be managed and hopefully managed sustainably,” Dale said. “Can we also think about space as an equitable resource? Can we make space safer for operators and allow for more entities in space for generations to come?”
CREATING A FORUM
Similar long-term concerns prompted Spanish attorney and economist Leonardo López Marcos and French Ph.D. student Yéléna Esslinger to establish the International Legal Center for Space Sustainability.
The Paris-based Center, founded this year, plans to conduct webinars, seminars and conferences to raise awareness of sustainability issues ranging from space debris generation to uncontrolled reentries, space resource extraction and applying space technologies to protect Earth’s environment.
“We are trying to create a forum to discuss these things,” López said. “We are going to try to increase awareness of space sustainability and convince policymakers to improve their regulations.”
In addition, the Center will provide legal counsel for dispute settlement and litigation.
“For instance, a university would come to us and say that a private company crashed one of its satellites or debris fragment into one of its satellites,” López said. “How can we ask them to take responsibility?”
If sustainability is not addressed, space-related economic activity could be threatened, said López, who wrote bachelor’s and master’s degree theses on the economics of space mining. López earned a bachelor’s degree at University Charles III of Madrid, a master’s degrees in law and legal practice law from Valencian International University in Spain and a master’s in public international law at the University of Oslo in Norway.
“Private investors and governments are not going to invest in space if there is no sustainability in space activities,” López said.
A THORNY PROBLEM
The terrestrial economy also relies heavily on communications and other space-based services, said Zaria Serfontein, an Astroscale UK product strategy engineer.
“Low-Earth orbit is such a great resource that we have access to,” Serfontein said. “It would be such a pity to not be able to use it 100 years from now.”
Serfontein learned about space debris as an undergraduate studying aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Ireland’s University of Limerick.
“One day we had a class on space debris, where they went through all the junk in space, how fast it’s traveling, how catastrophic it can be and the fact that we’re not doing enough to fix it right now,” Serfontein said. “That initially piqued my interest because there’s a big problem and if we don’t fix it, we’re not going to be able to do anything that we’re currently doing in space.”
Serfontein went on to earn a master’s in aeronautics and space engineering and a Ph.D. from Britain’s Cranfield University.
For Serfontein, the complexity of space sustainability makes the challenge all the more enticing.
“As an engineer by trade, I want to solve problems,” Serfontein said. “This one involves geopolitics, technological challenges, having to raise funds and build a business around it, and making people do things that go against their monetary interest for the sake of being responsible.”
Still, Serfontein remains optimistic.
“It’s very difficult to quantify when sustainability is going to reach a point where if we don’t do something immediately, something bad is going to happen,” Serfontein said. “I would like to think that we’re starting early enough that we can prevent a catastrophic event from happening.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.