Measuring pollution produced by the space sector can be quite complicated and it seems there’s more to it than just space debris. OPMCSA fellow Priyanka Dhopade and analyst Carolle Varughese reflect on caring for the final frontier. 

The space sector

Historically, activity in space has been driven by geopolitical competition (the space race) between the US and Russia, initiated by the launch of Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union. This is often referred to as the beginning of the Space Age. Large governmental agencies like NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) then directed scientific research and exploration initiatives in space. Recent years have seen increasing public-private partnerships, such as SpaceX contracts to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. The global space industry is now transitioning to an era of increased access to space through commercial launch providers like SpaceX and Rocket Lab. This era is referred to as New Space. Most of the money generated by the space industry today (US $469 billion as of 2022) comes from the commercial sector. Ninety nations are operating in space, with 1,022 spacecraft placed in orbit between January and June in 2022. More than US $224 billion is from products and services delivered by companies using satellite data.

The New Zealand space sector began its rapid development by establishing its space agency in 2016, following Rocket Lab’s proposal to commence commercial space launches. The SpaceBase Directory identifies 231 unique New Zealand-based organisations interested in space as of 2022, characterised by a mixture of start-up and well-established companies, educational and research institutions, and special interest groups.

The Kessler Syndrome

Those who have made the most of the space race have also left a trail of byproducts and remnants, commonly referred to as space junk or space debris. This is a collection of abandoned launch stages, defunct satellites, and fragments of anything sent out into space (including a Tesla roadster). Even though outer space is a vast expanse, space debris is already an issue for highly valuable orbits above Earth. For example, the International Space Station (ISS) has on multiple occasions performed evasive manoeuvres to avoid debris. It could get worse as the accumulation of space junk reaches a point where we cannot have satellites in certain orbits, known as the Kessler Syndrome, which is a significant concern. This scenario paints a grim picture where existing space debris collides, producing more, smaller, harder-to-track debris, further compounding the problem.

As the growing space sector demands more launches and more satellites, space debris will become more of a problem. One study projected that more than 100,000 active satellites could occupy low Earth orbits (up to 2000 km altitude) by 2030. For reference, there were only 2,000 operational satellites in 2018.  These numbers only account for active satellites and don’t include many failed and defunct satellites or other debris that also congest the same area. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates there are approximately 136 million objects larger than 1mm currently in Earth’s orbits, including discarded parts of rocket bodies and satellites. The largest contributors are China, Russia and the US.

Data from space

Trends in the Earth observation global markets show that defence and intelligence-based markets drive the need for high-resolution data. The derived data is becoming increasingly important for managing natural resources, informing industries like the agricultural sector in the face of climate-related challenges, and monitoring environmental policy compliance. This includes weather monitoring, climate disasters, emergency warning systems and rapid response capabilities to environmental and social challenges, and telecommunication, broadcasting, and navigation.

It is more than debris

It isn’t just the space junk that is causing concern. Satellite constellations are large networks of satellites that work together to provide communication services like the internet, and there is a growing concern that thousands of satellites will be launched to form mega-constellations. These satellites could interfere with astronomical observations, and their numbers increase the likelihood of collisions and failures, adding to space junk. The increased number of satellites has led to issues such as radio and other spectrum interferences, orbital crowding, privacy and surveillance, and competition with established space operators. In 2020 alone, the world registered 1,260 new satellites and other space objects with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). That is almost 10% of all objects registered with the UN since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957.

Based on the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), the recommendation is that satellites don’t last longer than 25 years and that post-mission disposal plans should be made. Most post-mission disposals involve de-orbiting equipment and burning up in the atmosphere; if anything survives to the land on the Earth’s surface, it is to be retrieved. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and European Space Agency have recently adopted a five-year rule for de-orbiting satellites to minimise the chances of generating orbital debris. This proactive approach sets a standard for the industry and is crucial for prolonging space activities.

Many spacefaring nations are aware of the gravity of the Kessler syndrome. They’ve either adopted mitigation plans based on existing guidelines or instituted regulations ensuring the mitigation of space debris and the inclusion of de-orbit plans. But who bears the responsibility for debris that’s been orbiting since the dawn of the space age? As a growing space nation, New Zealand isn’t turning a blind eye to this issue. We adopted an orbital debris mitigation policy based on standard international guidelines and recently introduced a world-first Active Debris Removal and On-Orbit Servicing Missions policy. These policies are a start to New Zealand’s commitment to the responsible use of space. Active debris removal is the deliberate removal of debris to clear orbital paths. For example, Rocket Lab aims to launch the Japanese ADRAS-J satellite built by Astroscale to approach an old upper-stage rocket body in low Earth orbits. The next stage would be to capture and de-orbit the rocket body to likely burn up in the atmosphere.

Our atmosphere is also being polluted

The issue of outer space pollution doesn’t stop there. Everything that goes up into outer space should generally come down, except for probes and missions we’ve sent far out into the solar system (but that’s another conversation). We must also consider the emissions generated by rocket launches and the particulates from vaporised metal during stratospheric re-entry. Emissions and launch effects from a rocket may be quite small; however, pollutants from using fuels are being introduced to all atmospheric levels and impact the stratospheric ozone. One issue is that none of the emissions are quantified or reported on publicly, which becomes more severe as the space industry grows and launch costs decrease, increasing the number of launches. Even with the rise of cleaner rocket fuel options (for example, methane as an alternative to fuels like kerosene) used in rockets such as SpaceX’s Starship, Rocket Lab’s Neutron, and the Arianespace Prometheus engine, there is still concern about the effects the space industry has on the environment.

We have to care for the final frontier

Wider perspectives are still missing from this conversation, such as astronomers who struggle with light pollution affecting astronomical observation and Indigenous populations with cultural practices concerning the night sky that will be affected. It shows that the final frontier is not immune to the challenges of exploration and progress. Still, as we continue to inhabit space, it is as geopolitically complex as any other global commons issue. We undoubtedly benefit from accessing outer space, but lessons learned from our management of Earth’s environment, for example, the high seas, deep seas, atmosphere, and Antarctica might inform how we better care for the space environment.

Priyanka and Carolle