To boldly go: Government floats new Plan for Space Sustainability

Does an environment without an atmosphere still require protecting? The answer from the UK government is an emphatic ‘yes’, following the announcement it is to launch a new Plan for Space Sustainability.

Speaking at last week’s 4th Summit for Space Sustainability in London, Science Minister George Freeman revealed the UK government is keen to lead global efforts to establish new sustainability standards for a commercial space industry that is experiencing rapid growth.

Freeman said the government is to work with the industry to develop a new Space Sustainability Standard, which will aim to incentivise companies to adopt best practice in space sustainability and officially recognise those who take steps to minimise their footprint on the Earth’s orbit.

The Standard is to be developed and tested by industry and academia, in partnership with government and the Civil Aviation Authority, which acts as the UK spaceflight regulator..

Freeman also confirmed the UK will undertake a regulatory review to incentivize sustainable practices, investment, and growth across the space industry, so as to allow the latest innovations in technologies such as Active Debris Removal (ADR), In-Orbit Servicing, and Manufacturing ( IOSM), and sustainable development to “become tomorrow’s norms in space operation”.

The hope is that new plan can help tackle both ‘space junk’ – which could present a threat to new satellites – and the environmental impact from the space industry’s fast-expanding supply chain.

“The huge increase in commercial satellite launches will see tens of thousands of small satellites launched in the next 10 years,” Freeman said. “A ‘Wild West’ space race 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.

“To harness space for sustainability, we need an agreed framework of standards for measuring and managing, improving satellite repair and retrieval and kite-marking genuinely sustainable supply chains.”

He argued that regulators needed to learn lessons from the historic emergence of hugely disruptive and influential new technologies. “As it was with shipping in the 17th century and cars in the 20th, the key will be regulated which enforces good industry standards and reduces the cost of insurance and finance for a satellite launch which can show it is compliant,” he said. “With London as a global capital of insurance and venture financing, we have an opportunity to use our historic role in space science to now harness responsible finance for sustainable space.

“That is why today I am announcing our plan for Space Sustainability, a package of announcements which demonstrates the UK’s commitment to using our regulatory leadership. This plan will ensure a safe and sustainable commercial space sector which rewards responsible satellite programs by lowering the costs of launch licenses and insurance for sustainable satellites and space missions.”

In addition, the government last week announced new investment to support Phase 3 of the implementation of the UN Office for Outer Space Activities (UNOOSA) guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space.

And it confirmed £10m of new funding for the UK’s Active Debris Removal (ADR) program and the National Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme, both of which aim to ultimately reduce levels of space debris.

“The UK government firmly believes that the growing volume of debris in space is both environmentally and commercially unsustainable, requiring swift action to clean up the Earth’s orbit as well as to ensure future projects minimise their footprint through recyclable manufacturing, retrieving satellites and mitigating any debris ,” the government said in a statement.

“Space sustainability is a complex challenge requiring a variety of solutions, but it also presents a significant opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership,” said Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency. “We’re developing new missions and capabilities to improve how we track objects in orbit and accelerate technologies such as active debris removal, while setting new standards and working closely with international partners to keep space open for future generations.”

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