Space Sustainability

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The primary focus of the Secure World Foundation is on space sustainability - the ability of all humanity to continue to use outer space for peaceful purposes and socioeconomic benefit over the long term.

Why Is It Important?

  • A growing number of actors are using outer space for an increasing variety of socioeconomic and national security benefits.
  • Many of these space activities use the same regions of Earth orbit, leading to crowding and potential physical and electromagnetic interference.
  • Unsafe or irresponsible actions by one actor can have long-term consequences for all.
  • If we do not use space sustainably, the cost of using space will increase, which could make it too expensive to continue to use space for:
    • National and international security
    • Earth observation
    • Telecommunications
    • Satellite navigation
    • Scientific exploration
    • Economic development

Challenges to Space Sustainability

The Space Environment

  • Debris is a result of human activities in outer space. Currently more than 21,000 pieces of debris larger than about 10 cm (4 inches) are being tracked in orbit around the Earth, and there are as many as 500,000 additional untracked pieces larger than 1 cm (about ½ inch). Debris colliding with one of the more than 1,800 operational satellites could result in serious damage or complete destruction of the satellite.
  • Space weather, caused mostly by the interaction of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth's magnetic field, can also disrupt satellite services or even damage satellites. Although space weather is a natural phenomenon that is not affected by human activity, it still plays an important role in space sustainability. Not knowing whether a satellite was damaged by space weather or by hostile action could lead to conflict.
  • Radio frequency interference, either from natural sources or man-made and either intentional or unintentional, can have significant negative impacts on our ability to use space.  Many satellites also use radio waves as an important element in their functioning, including retransmitting television broadcasts or transmitting imagery or scientific data that they have collected.  Interference can be generated by other satellites, terrestrial systems, or space weather.

Accidents and Irresponsible Actions of Space Actors

  • Collisions and explosions can create large amounts of space debris. This debris poses a risk to everyone operating in space, and the pieces can stay in orbit for decades or even longer, depending on the object's altitude. A few especially difficult space operational activities, such as rendezvous and docking, require extra attention to prevent collisions or other mishaps.
  • Conflict in space could have devastating consequences for the long-term sustainability of space. Destroying satellites can create huge amounts of debris that could render certain areas of Earth orbit unusable. Misperceptions and mistrust with regard to military activities in space could serve as a catalyst for conflict in space or on Earth.
  • Frequency Interference through improper configuration or use of radio transmission equipment on satellites or on the ground can interrupt satellite communications, which can increase chances of collisions and misunderstandings.

What is SWF Doing to Assist Space Sustainability?

Increasing Awareness of the Challenges to Space Sustainability

  • Not all space actors have the capacity to operate safely in space. They may lack the proper information about the space environment, tools to analyze information and make decisions, or experience and knowledge about best practices. SWF has developed a small booklet to inform interested parties about the dangers to Space Sustainability, which is available for distribution.
  • All space actors and users should be made aware of the potential negative consequences of certain actions in space, such as anti-satellite tests, which can result in long-term damage to the space environment. SWF provides analysis, issue briefs, and fact sheets on relevant actions that relate to space sustainability.
  • Understanding the challenges to space sustainability requires a long term view with evidence-based knowledge. SWF is a major contributor to the yearly Space Security Index, which outlines the major trends of actions threatening space sustainability and space security.

Facilitating Multistakeholder Dialogue and International Cooperation

  • There are a multitude of space stakeholders, each with their own focus and goals. SWF brings the stakeholders together to understand their common opportunities and challenges, and to work on cooperative solutions to problems.
  • Because no one nation or entity is responsible for outer space, there must be a certain level of cooperation and dialog among all space actors on space activities. The increasing numbers of States, commercial organizations and international organizations entering space make it increasingly important to develop new international agreements on appropriate behavior in space. As a Permanent Observer at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) SWF works with delegates to COPUOS to support the efforts of the Working Group on Space Sustainability.

Promoting Ways to Strengthen Stability and Security

  • Since actions in space can trigger terrestrial conflict, strengthening stability in space can enhance overall international security. SWF works at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and in the First Committee of the UN in New York to develop ways to reduce the potential for conflict in space.
  • A critical condition for space stability is an understanding of the space environment, which involves knowing the exact location of space assets and space debris. SWF works on the policies and technical solutions toward increasing space situational awareness for all space actors.
  • Actions by one actor in space can have adverse effects on everyone, so it is important that all space activities are conducted in a safe and responsible manner, in accordance with established laws, norms, and best practices. Sharing information among countries about space policies and activities and abiding by best practices in space can help to strengthen space stability. SWF works with established and emerging space nations to help establish prudent and effective space policies and encourage regional coordination for maximum efficiency.
Last updated on April 5, 2019