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The escalating danger of space debris: Niklas Hedman, Acting Director for UNOOSA

Since the birth of the space age in the 1950s, people have sent thousands of rockets and satellites into orbit. Many are still there to this day

The Initiative: UK Space Agency and UNOOSA

Space debris, also known as space junk, materializes from discarded launch vehicles or spacecraft that float around in space. Debris also originates by explosions in space, encompassing both natural meteoroid and artificial (human-made) orbital debris. Meteoroids are in orbit around the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit around the Earth.

Organizations have attempted to raise global awareness in the importance of space sustainability and hinder the creation of space debris. An example is the initiative with the collaboration between the UK Space Agency and UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). They were aiming at supporting safe and sustainable space operations. Mr. Niklas Hedman, Acting Director of UNOOSA, walks us through the project’s intentions and goals. This is in terms of creating a safer space free of space debris. 

The preparation of the guidelines was part of a process that started in 2010. This was building on previous efforts. More specifically, when the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of COPUOS commenced taking into account the long-term sustainability of space. They started to consider it as an agenda item. By 2019, the guidelines for Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities were unanimously endorsed by ninety-two countries. These guidelines took serious matters into addressing space operations. As a result, protecting our shared space environment.

«This is thanks to the generous contribution of the United Kingdom Space Agency. UNOOSA has been implementing the ‘Awareness-raising and capacity-building related to the implementation of the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities’ project. The Project reinforces efforts to raise global awareness on the importance of space sustainability and foster related capacity-building services. In the initial phase of the partnership, we produced infographics; a series of virtual events and a comprehensive case study collection. The project now focuses on a public stakeholder study report. This is to reflect the experiences, challenges, and potential needs for capacity building assistance of Member States in implementing the LTS Guidelines».

Space debris and its imminent threat

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), the total mass of space objects in orbit is more than 9,600 tons. The debris orbits around space with a speed of 15,700 miles per hour. Some are big enough that they can track them by surveillance networks. Others are too small for them to track but are nonetheless disastrous enough to threaten missions. This is due to the high speeds at which space debris orbits. Hedman explains.

«statistical models estimate around 36,000 human-made objects greater than ten centimeters and millions sized under ten centimeters in orbit. The large pieces already pose a challenge to monitoring capabilities. The smaller ones, however, cannot be tracked reliably and continuously. This is an issue. Even the smallest piece of debris traveling at 25,000 km/h can damage or destroy satellites. It can also threaten crewed missions. We have already seen an increase in near encounters of space debris with the International Space Station. It has hosted astronauts uninterruptedly for the past twenty years».

The Kessler Syndrome

The potential damage caused by collisions can be fatal for the crews that are living and working in space. Pieces of debris could then cause new collisions and then trigger a stream of other collisions. They call it the Kessler Syndrome. The idea was first proposed by NASA scientist, Donald Kessler, in 1978.  He stated that excessive space junk in orbit could create a chain reaction, causing the collision of more objects. This would create new space junk. As we enter a new era of space activity, the number of satellites launched per year has hit the thousands. In the past, it was merely a hundred at its most. 

Hedman confesses, «the problem of space debris is not confined solely to orbit. Ecological impact on Earth relates to instances when large pieces of space debris do not burn up in the atmosphere. The space community has the responsibility to manage these re-entries properly. This is one of the fundamental aspects of ensuring the sustainable use of space. They must control larger bodies to re-enter over uninhabited regions to avoid potential hazards to humans and the environment».

Scientists worry of large numbers of satellites repeatedly re-entering the atmosphere by virtue of mega-constellations. This is defined as systems utilizing thousands of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). More so, to deliver broadband data services anywhere on the planet. They could leave behind chemicals damaging the ozone layer and altering the composition of the upper atmosphere. To mitigate the environmental implications of space flight, groups are working to develop reusable rocket stages and sustainable materials.

LAmpoon, Remove debris Satellite Launch
Remove debris Satellite Launch

Outer Space: importance and ecological concerns 

Needless to say, many of the satellites provide imperative services and have become indispensable parts of our daily lives. With reference to protecting our environment and tackling climate change, satellite missions can provide new insights in comprehending complex interrelationships. This can develop more effective protective measures.

Additionally, it can track deforestation rates and reveal companies that are polluting the environment. «There needs to be more awareness on matters such as the proliferation of space debris and the increase of mega-constellations. Like this, more support for the guidelines will emerge from space actors. The core message is that space is important for our environment and the survival of humanity. So, there is a need to act now. The different elements of the project are available openly and in an easy-to-access manner. They often offer examples that highlight what can be done to prevent any negative impacts for future space endeavors».

Distinguishing between the problems in space from those of Earth. Neglecting our waste on Earth, not only jeopardizes humanity but natural ecosystems and other living creatures. Pollution in space predominately endangers ourselves as the ones operating in space. Usually, the person doing the polluting is a different person from the one who suffers the consequences of such actions. This is a different case in space.

«The problem is complex as we need to look at the full cycle of operations from the launch. From operation to disposal. Managing the life-cycle process is a field that several companies and researchers are working on. Making reusable rockets, extending satellite lifetime or safe disposal through controlled de-orbiting mechanisms are all part of the effort. An interplay of these developments is necessary for securing sustainability in space operations. In addition to scientific and technological progress, policy and legal discussions play a crucial role. This is both in guiding and regulating space activities, and also in the context of sustainability».

A sustainable use of space

According to UNOOSA’s Acting Director, the space sector itself values more than 400 billion dollars. It also employs over one million people. As a result, safeguarding infrastructure and future investments is imperative in terms of sustainable development, economic growth and climate action. «More than fifty percent of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets benefit from space activities. More than half of the Essential Climate Variables can only be measured from space. Combating disaster risks without space would prove catastrophic especially as the changing climate exacerbates their impact. Decision-makers, space agencies, researchers, and private entrepreneurs from all around the world acknowledge the threat of space debris. They all work on ways to mitigate connected risks».

These internationally agreed frameworks serve the purpose of ensuring safe and sustainable outer space for the generations to come. «Pursuing a holistic approach across four categories, that cover the policy and regulatory framework for space activities, the safety of space operations, and international cooperation, capacity-building, and awareness, as well as scientific and technical research and development».

There has been a significant increase in space activity driven by private sector entities using space for commercial enterprises. This increased use of space is not without cost to the delicate space environment. A more sustainable approach is sought by private and public sector actors.

«The purpose of awareness-raising and capacity-building related to the implementation of the guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities project and other activities that UNOOSA is undertaking with a range of partners as well as individually. Regarding the role of locals, their perspectives and needs but also talents and skills are instrumental. This is in evidence-based decision-making. Indigenous people, for example, possess unique knowledge and embrace environmentally sound practices. This is to preserve the very environment they live in. Building mutual respect and sharing insights is the best way to develop actionable solutions. They address the very needs of the locals».

Transition to a post pandemic world

The connection between sustainability and a prosperous existence has been communicated in development strategies for several decades. UNOOSA and its partners are part of several projects that target local communities, individuals and teams. They are from developing countries that are able to reflect that acquired insight to assist in addressing their specific needs.

These are based on the environment they live in and its unique conditions. «Bringing the benefit of space to everyone everywhere has the potential to improve the lives of many small communities. In addition, to advance quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9), and reduce inequalities (SDG 10). Guaranteeing access to space by ensuring a safe and sustainable outer space is imperative to succeed in doing so».

Living both on earth and in space have been perceived as the same challenge. Resources are limited and with such actions, mankind damages the natural world. It also deters the future-planned progress and long-term well-being.

«Reckless economic growth benefiting a small portion of the global population has always been dangerous. It is only by working together that sustainable and long-term solutions can be found – Earth and space alike. Partnerships and international cooperation drive innovation, generating novel measures to combat the challenges we face. The challenges we cause ourselves. A preserved and safe orbital, as well as an Earth environment, are essential to humanity. It is time to build a shareholder economy».

Hedman concludes: «Inclusion and diversity in projects, research, education, and careers, as well as equal access to the benefits of space. These are all key to building the future we want. Awareness raising and involving locals are two of the factors for our success in this endeavor. Even after decades of the space age and the recent boom in space activities. The benefits of space remain ‘hidden’ from the spotlight as it is often exploration efforts that make the headline. Even without going into depth in explaining the gains from such investments back on Earth».

UNOOSA

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is a UN body based in Vienna, Austria. Their roles are to maintain the UN Registry of Objects launched in outer space. Adopting international solutions to problems, for example, the rapid increase in space debris. As well as establishing sustainability of outer activities. UNOOSA serves as the Secretariat for the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). They confer with nations in order to support the execution of long-term sustainability guidelines that were established through COPOUS.

Farah Hassan

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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