This article was originally published in ConsumoTIC on 20 January 2023.
The impact of mega-constellations of satellites that will result in “space junk” – thousands of satellites orbiting the planet in 25 to 30 years – is one of the issues that will drive an international debate on the sustainability of outer space, although experts believe that a sustainable solution would be difficult to achieve.
“The growing concern about space debris will force an international debate on the sustainability of space. At the UN, both the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will accumulate new resolutions and provisions on the subject. However, the tension between existing and emerging space powers means that any regulation is unlikely to reach a sustainable solution”.
According to the Access Partnership’s Tech Policy Trends 2023 report, the key question is how will space sustainability rules limit the impact of mega-constellations?
“One of the key issues around space sustainability is the potential chaos that could be caused by thousands of satellites orbiting the planet unchecked in 25 to 30 years’ time, when the megaconstellations currently being launched cease to function and become space junk”.
The report cited the US decision to reduce the timeframe from 25 to 5 years for operators to “shoot down” low-orbiting satellites once they cease to operate, specifically in the new megaconstellations, as one of the first regulations in the world to address the problem of “space junk” that may set an international trend.
Another factor is competition between private companies, specifically current organisations operating geostationary satellites (which maintain a “fixed point”) and new operators, which are designing non-geostationary megaconstellations, which orbit much closer to the earth’s surface but do not always cover the same point and need hundreds of satellites to provide continuous connectivity to their customers.
“Existing satellite operators believe that these new constellations pose many risks, especially from a commercial point of view. By orbiting closer to the surface of the planet, they can offer lower latency (faster connections), but by requiring many satellites (potentially many thousands), these constellations pose a challenge from a sustainability point of view”.
In this respect, it is believed that space sustainability standards could play a key role in limiting the actions of mega-constellations and increasing the risk of investing in the business they have the potential to generate.
“How a satellite is designed, how many and what components it may have, how it is launched into space and how it is operated while orbiting the planet, as well as how it is retired once it stops working, are all elements of space sustainability that regulation could come down to, creating winners and losers, making this a debate that no one in the space industry can choose to ignore”.
Experts expect to see new policy and regulatory frameworks at regional and national levels that will seek to set the international agenda, which will focus on creating commercial environments that attract investment from companies seeking to align themselves with regional leaders in this field.
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