NEW YORK — The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released a new set of guidelines intended to reduce the creation of orbital debris with the support of some, but not all, major satellite operators.
The Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations document, released by the WEF June 13, outlines recommendations to avoid collisions that can create debris by limiting the lifetime of satellites in orbit after they have completed their missions and improving coordination among satellite operators.
Among those recommendations is to establish a success rate for “post-mission disposal,” or removal of satellites from orbit after the end of their missions, to 95% to 99%. That disposal should be completed no more than five years after the end of each satellite’s mission.
Current international guidelines, often incorporated into national law, set a post-mission disposal timeline of up to 25 years, although the U.S. Federal Communications Commission adopted a new rule last September that will reduce it to five years for satellites that are licensed or obtain market access from the agency. Even with the 25-year guideline, compliance has been below 50% by some metrics.
“We wanted to push the envelope a little bit on some of these concrete, specific targets,” said Nikolai Khlystov, lead for the WEF’s Future of Space initiative, during a panel at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability here June 13. It was intended, he said, to build on past work by the WEF, notably the development of the Space Sustainability Rating that assesses how satellite systems meet best practices for safe and sustainable space operations.
Other recommendations in the document call for satellites to be maneuverable, preferably though onboard propulsion, when operating at altitudes above 375 kilometers. Satellite operators should answer “all reasonable and legitimate requests” for space traffic coordination from other operators and share orbital data.
The document calls on governments to adopt the new post-mission disposal guidelines and mandate the use of active debris removal systems for space objects that cannot comply with them, once such systems are “practical and commercially affordable.” It also recommends increased investments in space situational awareness capabilities and encourages sharing of data on orbits of space objects.
The audience for the document, Khlystov said, is as much stakeholders outside the industry as it is satellite operators. “You can take this document to policymakers, investors and other stakeholders and say this is where a significant part of the industry is at.”
Twenty-seven companies endorsed the document at the time of its release. They include companies that operate large satellite constellations, such as OneWeb, Planet and Spire, as well as a mix of other established and emerging space companies.
Among them is GHGSat, a Canadian company that has nine smallsats in orbit to monitor greenhouse gas emissions. “Even before engaging in this discussion, we needed to come up with new practices” on space sustainability, said Bryn Orth-Lashley, technical operations and service delivery manager at GHGSat, during the panel. “It wasn’t that much of an uphill climb.”
He noted the company’s satellites do not have onboard propulsion but are able to maneuver by alternative means, such as differential drag, to comply with the guidelines. The company will continue to operate satellites after the end of their commercial missions, including performing avoidance maneuvers, until reentry.
Some major companies, though, have not signed on. They include SpaceX, which operates by far the largest satellite constellation with its Starlink system, and Amazon, which is developing its Project Kuiper constellation. Even some satellite operators that have espoused the importance of space sustainability, like Viasat, are not included.
Khlystov said the WEF undertook a “pretty comprehensive effort” to engage with as many satellite operators as possible. “If some actors didn’t sign on, I don’t think it’s a sign that they are against these standards,” he said, noting there was some “pretty significant input” from operators not included among the 27 signatories.
“I was very encouraged by the process,” he continued. “We had very good discussions. Not everybody who was part of the discussions came on board, but they were all very engaged.”