The United Kingdom has its sights set on meeting emerging demands in its quest to become a major global space power. Few on the horizon are more pressing than the need to improve orbital sustainability.
Alongside investments in startups building businesses to clean up orbital debris, the British government is seeking to shape regulations to ingrain these companies in the future space ecosystem.
The government is also on a mission to incentivize sustainable space practices more broadly.
U.K. Science Minister George Freeman launched a raft of sustainability measures in June that include plans to make licenses, insurance and other costs cheaper for environmentally conscious space players. Less sustainable space businesses could face a comparatively harsher business climate.
Called the Plan for Space Sustainability, it joins the U.K.’s wider strategy for a bigger slice of the global space industry to bolster its post-Brexit economy.
On the surface, adding more bureaucracy appears to be a drag on other growth pillars set out in the National Space Strategy the country published in September. Namely, plans to develop a domestic launch capability and foster a business-friendly environment to attract more early-stage companies.
However, it comes as the low Earth orbit (LEO) population is estimated to grow from about 4,000 satellites to 100,000 by 2030, according to a June report British satellite operator Inmarsat published in partnership with Astro Analytica. The estimate did not include startup E-Space’s proposed 300,000-satellite constellation due to a lack of publicly available information about those plans.
Either way, such dramatic growth could exponentially increase the risk of debris-causing collisions that threaten the operational viability of Earth orbit.
Much depends on the shape U.K. space sustainability regulations take and if and how they are adopted outside the United Kingdom.
“The problem with space debris is that it needs to be a global solution,” said Armand Musey, founder of New York-based advisory firm Summit Ridge Group.
Without universal agreements, Musey contends space companies are incentivized to launch or operate from countries with less regulatory costs and burdens.
The satellite industry’s rapid growth is also largely a product of how increasingly easy and cheap it is to access space. Musey describes this as “a recipe for small companies that don’t have the resources to clean up a mess if they make one.”
While the drumbeat to address space sustainability issues is getting louder as megaconstellations like Starlink and OneWeb get bigger, he still sees little political will internationally to turn the tide.
That is something the United Kingdom hopes to change.
MAKING A START
Freeman said the country’s sustainability measures aim to rein in the “Wild West space race,” which he says “without effective regulation risks a growing crisis of debris in space, adding to the existing threat from 400 redundant satellites and a million pieces of debris.”
The Plan for Space Sustainability has four main elements:
- A review of the U.K.’s regulatory framework to incentivize sustainable practices, investments and growth. The review aims to ensure its regulations keep pace with emerging technologies that protect the space operating environment.
- The development of a Space Sustainability Standard to encourage companies to adopt best practices, and officially recognize the voluntary steps they take to minimize orbital footprints.
- Commitments to work internationally on space sustainability within organizations such as the United Nations and the G-7 nations.
- An extra £5 million ($6.1 million) funding for the next phase of an active debris removal program.
The government said additional funds for the debris removal demonstration, which involves de-orbiting unprepared defunct satellites, enables it to “move at pace” for picking two teams this summer to advance in the program.
Last year, the U.K. awarded three feasibility study contracts with a combined value of £1 million to consortia led by Astroscale, ClearSpace and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The plan is to remove two spacecraft from LEO by 2025.
The government called for “swift action” to start cleaning up debris and introduce measures to minimize the footprint of future projects.
“As it was with shipping in the 17th century and cars in the 20th, the key will be regulation which enforces good industry standards and reduces the cost of insurance and finance for a satellite launch which can show it is compliant,” Freeman said.
The U.K. hopes to leverage London’s legacy as a global insurance and financial services hub to influence international space sustainability regulations.
Freeman’s remarks came a day after Prince Charles called for an “Astro Carta” for space sustainability, referring to England’s Magna Carta that was signed more than 800 years ago to limit royal authority and establish the rule of law.
He said an Astro Carta could build upon the U.S.-led Artemis Accords to establish sustainable space exploration.
“Regulation can sometimes be viewed in a negative way, but many of the innovative activities we are taking forward to support sustainability could not be achieved without world-leading regulation,” a UK Space Agency spokesperson told SpaceNews via email.
Astroscale has been a major benefactor of U.K. investments in the in-orbit servicing market.
The Japanese startup’s British subsidiary recently secured funding to move ahead with a 2024 demo mission to de-orbit what will likely be a OneWeb satellite.
Astroscale plans to launch commercial services after this demo mission, dubbed the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-multiple, or ELSA-m.
Supported by ground operators in the U.K., Astroscale is currently in the middle of demonstrating de-orbit technologies in LEO under ELSA-d, or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration.
ELSA-d is using a 175-kilogram servicer and a much smaller satellite acting as debris to validate technologies.
The servicer successfully released and re-captured its 17-kilogram client in August, but lost half of its eight thrusters as it was preparing another capture attempt early this year. Astroscale is still deciding whether to proceed with its original plan to ultimately de-orbit the client.
ELSA-d and ELSA-m’s capture mechanisms require their targets to have magnetic docking plates, which will not be a part of the 2025 mission that Astroscale is competing to join.
The UK Space Agency spokesperson said data from active debris removal, in-orbit servicing and other demo missions “provide ground truths” for how the U.K. should regulate the space industry.
“The UK Space Agency increasingly hears from the space sector and our international partners that regulation and legal certainty are key to managing risks in space, engendering a responsible approach to space operations, and ensuring space remains a sustainable environment for all,” the spokesperson said.
The country’s strategic focus on sustainability also aims to tap into an investment trend that favors businesses with strong Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials.
A number of companies have been voluntary including ESG statistics in their financial statements — such as how much pollution they cause and what they are doing to reduce it — to improve their corporate image and attract socially-minded investors.
However, the ESG movement is struggling against a lack of universally recognized standards for verifying these credentials, leading to a confusing mix of competing guidelines and accusations of “greenwashing.”
Even still, the UK Space Agency says companies that commit to an ethos where ESG “standards are at the heart of what they do attract an increasing pool of ethical investors and insurers.”
SETTING THE STANDARD
Freeman said its new Space Sustainability Standard could serve as a “kitemark,” or standard of safety and quality, for attracting companies and ESG investors.
The British government is developing and testing the standard with industry, academia and the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates its emerging launch capability.
International expertise will also be harnessed.
“This will be an on-going piece of work, but over the coming months industry will undertake the work to develop and scope the standard,” the UK Space Agency spokesperson added.
The standard would include ESG-focused metrics that cover spacecraft and the use of space for environmental sustainability on Earth.
It will apply existing space sustainability guidelines and principles, while also filling in any gaps to develop best practices across the lifecycle of space activities.
Mark Boggett, managing director of British early-stage space investor Seraphim Capital, said such sustainability-focused regulation could work “hand in glove” with the rapid expansion of satellites in orbit.
“I don’t meet any constellation companies that don’t want themselves to be a responsible operator,” he said.
A day before the Plan for Space Sustainability was launched, British satellite fleet operator Inmarsat released a report with its own recommendations for improving sustainability.
They included introducing a points-based penalty system tied to the licensing process for new launches and the management of constellations.
This would directly link a company’s operating record to the outcome and speed of future license applications.
“Robust and bold steps are needed to arrest the deteriorating state of the space environment,” Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri said.
Other recommendations in Inmarsat’s far-reaching report include expanding the remit of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an affiliate of the United Nations.
The ITU currently regulates global wireless radio spectrum and access to positions in geostationary orbit.
To update the organization for the megaconstellation era, Inmarsat suggested expanding ITU’s remit from spectrum to orbital regulation in LEO.
“It is important, in the long run, to have an international body recognised by all, that plays a role in overseeing orbital regime allocations and that can take a clear and complete perspective on LEO deployments from a global sustainability point of view,” Inmarsat said in the report.
THE STATE OF UK
September’s National Space Strategy showed the U.K. had a 6% share of the global space economy in 2019.
The government had for years promoted a goal of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030, but has walked away from this target and did not restate the ambition in the strategy report document.
According to the UK Space Agency, the Space Directorate of the U.K.’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is currently designing a framework to “measure the collective progress against the goals set out in the National Space Strategy.”
Through the European Space Agency, the UK Space Agency spokesperson said the U.K. has become “the largest investor in space safety,” which the country sees as underpinning satcoms, Earth observation, scientific, exploration and other aspects of the space sector.
The U.K. also sees in-orbit servicing as a stepping stone toward dominance in a future in-orbit manufacturing industry.
However, it is not the only one looking to get a foothold in these emerging markets.
Europe and Japan have also recently announced programs to fund the development of debris-removing capabilities and conduct demo missions.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine as “The UK’s ‘Astra Carta’ moment: Building a Space Sustainability Growth Platform.”