To continue exploring space sustainably, we must act now

It was Branson versus Bezos, rocket against rocket, in the race to send the first billionaire into space.

Blue Origin announced on June 7 that Jeff Bezos, its founder, would fly on the firm’s first crewed mission scheduled for July 20. That same day, Parabolic Arc reported that Virgin Galactic was planning to send Richard Branson on a suborbital flight on July 11. And both aimed to beat the third space-going billionaire, Elon Musk.

More than half a century after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, space exploration is clearly on the upswing again. However, today’s missions reflect far more than the ambitions of billionaires, even if Musk, Bezos and Branson have generated the most headlines for their personal space plans.

Instead, we’re seeing the emergence of a true space economy. This new sector is in its exponential growth phase, and what unifies current commercial projects is the influx of investments in new technologies and infrastructure.

Today’s explorers have plans for expansion that range from the outer limits of our imagination — travel to other planets or colonizing Mars — to the launches of thousands of telecommunication, global navigation and Earth observation satellites, with massive investments being made.

The size of the global space economy — which combines satellite services and ground equipment, government space budgets and global navigation satellites equipment — is estimated to be about $345 billion. Startup space ventures brought in $5.7 billion in 2019, easily besting 2018’s $3.5 billion record. By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion.

In other words, we’re at the start of a gold rush in outer space — and our track record for the sustainable development of any environment during gold rushes hasn’t been particularly noteworthy.

The threat of catastrophic space collisions is growing

We are at a critical tipping point for ensuring the safe and sustainable development of new business opportunities in space. Many of these activities use the same regions of the Earth’s orbit, which is not an infinite space. According to NASA, more than 100 million pieces of orbital debris of about 1 mm or larger are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Much more debris — too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions — exists in the near-Earth space environment.

In an environment where both debris and spacecraft are traveling at velocities in excess of 15,700 mph in low-Earth orbit, even a 5 mm nut can shred a solar panel like it was made of paper. In fact, NASA reports that millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low-Earth orbit. As space becomes more and more congested, unsafe or irresponsible actions by any one actor could have catastrophic consequences.

Advances in reusable rockets, which lowered the cost to launch 1 kilogram of payload mass to orbit, and the miniaturization of satellites have all helped to create this threat of a traffic jam in Earth’s orbit. Nearly 3,000 active satellites are currently in orbit above our planet, and this number will likely skyrocket in the coming years. A 230% increase in satellite launches per year is expected by 2025, with 24,000 satellite launches now in planning, according to MarketWatch. And that figure doesn’t even include launches by SpaceX, OneWeb or Kuiper. SpaceX’s Starlink alone has applied to fly 40,000 satellites.

The cost to launch 22 tons to low-Earth orbit has declined from $200 million to about $60 million thanks to reusable rockets. Satellite applications that once required one massive high-performance satellite with a cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars can now be tackled with constellations of cheaper ($1 million), smaller, lower-performance satellites working together to provide a global service.

While the performance of a single smaller satellite is still inferior to that of a much larger one, the use of data from multiple satellites can often produce comparable results. Moreover, the architecture of a constellation is highly scalable, so as soon as newer generations of satellites are launched, the performance of the infrastructure as a whole increases exponentially.

Sustainable development requires new technologies and better governance

Sustainable economic expansion will require innovative solutions to support traditional and new customers throughout the life cycle of a space mission, from a careful analysis of a mission’s requirements to end-of-life decommissioning.

Some of these solutions will require completely new space-based infrastructures that can streamline launch, operation and decommissioning. D-Orbit’s ION Satellite Carrier, for example, is a space transportation vehicle designed to host a batch of satellites, transport them to orbit and release them individually into distinct orbital slots. This deployment service complements the one offered by launch providers, which targets only the most strategic orbits, enabling satellite operators to cover the last mile in a significantly shorter time and use all the resources of their spacecraft to extend the duration of the mission itself.

This is the first step toward the creation of permanent space logistic infrastructures that can move spacecraft from one orbit to another, extend the life of older vehicles, perform repairs and collect satellite wrecks and other debris.

The issues surrounding sustainable growth in the space economy are too important and consequential to be left to a single company or country.

To strengthen international cooperation and establish a set of ground rules, we need a new model of space governance based on consensus among countries, with common standards. While the technology for debris-capturing spacecraft is already attainable, for example, there are still legal challenges to allow an operator based in a country to approach, capture and remove a space object launched by another country. Formulating global regulation to address this kind of operation is an essential step that can open new markets and business opportunities.

Forty-eight organizations and other government and industry stakeholders, including D-Orbit, formed the Space Safety Coalition (SSC) in 2019 to actively promote best practices for the long-term sustainability of space operations. The SSC has developed guidelines for avoiding launch and on-orbit collisions, minimizing human casualties from spacecraft or debris reentry and minimizing the impact of radio frequency interference (RFI) events, among other best practices for the overall long-term sustainability of space operations.

This industry-led sustainability effort needs to be adopted by all space stakeholders. How we develop and regulate the space economy will have long-lasting repercussions, and the window for avoiding mistakes is rapidly closing.

It is essential that we lose no time in developing the infrastructure, best practices and governance that will broaden humankind’s ability to operate in space and create still-unimagined opportunities for us all.