Powering sustainability in space: Protecting the final frontier, so it can protect us
At a time when the planet is facing a climate crisis, one frontier is central to finding potential solutions: Space. Space holds the key to safeguard our own existence – from satellite-based technologies that monitor our planet’s health and provide valuable intelligence to help with conflict analysis, such as in the war in Ukraine, to the quest for renewable energy sources and exploration of potentially habitable worlds. Space is emerging as a powerful ally in our mission to protect and preserve our planet.
But, while the potential of space to make a positive impact is vast, the sector continues to grow rapidly with minimal regulation. Stronger commitments to a responsible and sustainable space are therefore necessary for meaningful change.
In an important step forward for the UK, in June 2023, King Charles III unveiled the seal for the Astra Carta to act as a framework that inspires sustainability across the space industry. This was a welcome announcement to go alongside other recent efforts such as the UK Space Sustainability Standard, and international commitments like the 2022 Paris Peace Forum.
Together with the Ministry of Defence UK Space Command, we held a roundtable discussion bringing together academics, government stakeholders, the wider space industry, and sustainability experts to explore the challenges and opportunities for space to save lives and protect our planet.
Aligning the stars: Perceptions, collaboration, and regulation
One of the key themes discussed at the roundtable was the negative public perception of the space industry, and ways to address this challenge. Space begins on the ground, so reducing fossil fuels in ground operations and decarbonising energy supplies and transport would productively tackle climate change. Launches are another major concern, as the increasing number of commercial space flights contribute to space junk, joining dead satellites and harmful materials trapped in the earth’s orbit. Falling rocket components can also impact marine health. These types of incidents are often well reported, which results in a negative public perception, while the benefits of space technology are less understood.
During our discussion, we identified three practical priorities for space to be a greater force for good:
1. Positively promote space
Engaging with the UK Government, the public, and the media is crucial to reshaping the perception of space as a catalyst for positive change. This has lately involved engaging with climate advocacy groups like Extinction Rebellion.
The sector should also highlight how space-based satellite data can protect the environment (like the EU Copernicus earth observation programme), mitigate orbital debris, or enable clean energy generation. The recent £4.3 million funding announcement by the UK Government to develop space-based solar power technology already shows encouraging progress, and there will be many commercial opportunities as a result.
The space industry's efforts to make ground operations and launches more environmentally friendly, like investing in the research and development of greener fuel sources, will also help transform public perceptions.
2. Build collaborative
Collaboration among academia, the public sector, and industry will play a crucial role in striking a balance between the commercial needs and environmental impact of space. Transparent and joint activities that enable the sharing of satellite data and the reuse of hardware to minimise waste and duplication can have economic benefits and improve overall business outcomes.
Sharing satellite data holds immense value, empowering researchers, and scientists to access valuable information that can be used to continue studying climate patterns, monitor natural resources, understand environmental changes and develop early warning systems that can save lives. Collaborating in this way can contribute to scientific advancements and the development of innovative solutions, ultimately driving progress towards a more sustainable future.
Proactive collaboration can also unlock more commercial opportunities and societal benefits in areas such as earth observation.
3. Implement effective regulation
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, while foundational, has limitations in terms of protecting space. Tighter regulations are essential to prevent setting a precedent that contamination is acceptable. The Commons Science and Technology Committee has called for improved leadership from the Government and collaboration between regulators to prevent the sector from the unnecessary burdens of complexity and administration on companies, many of them small, in the launch sector.
We believe licensing satellite launches should involve stricter scrutiny of applicants' previous launch activities and adherence to certain environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards.
Progress around tighter regulations has already been made by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) as part of its ambitions to further lead the UK into space. However, while new regulations are crucial, they alone cannot solve the challenges faced, particularly in the current geopolitical climate. There is an opportunity for commercial goals to contribute to sustainability objectives in an economically effective way.
In July 2023, the UK Government published a new policy paper giving an update on progress so far in areas like climate monitoring, innovation funding, and international cooperation. It also provided a roadmap for continuing to implement the National Space Strategy through concrete policies and greater collaboration with industry.
By harnessing the full potential of space, improving perceptions, sharing data more openly, and developing sustainable practices together – industry, government and academia can play a powerful role in driving economic growth, and mitigating climate change. These concerted efforts hold the key to protecting the final frontier, so it can protect us.