We have entered a new era of space access where we must take stock of our excitement to cheaply access space and balance it with our shared responsibility to manage and preserve the area of space around our planet to ensure its future and long-term use.
We have a golden opportunity to learn from the environmental mistakes of the past, which we would be irresponsible to ignore. The environments we utilize for business and life look large to the individual, but we now know humanity has the power to impact and destroy these environments en masse. We have managed to pollute our oceans, which once seemed vast and unchangeable; we have deforested the earth from 60% to about 30% of its trees; and we have been continuously and inadvertently changing our climate. All this, with the honest intentions of building businesses and improving quality of life. From convenient plastic bottles and bags to the impacts of energy consumption - we are experts in improving ourselves immediately, while inadvertently ruining the environments in which we live.
And now we go to space.
With childlike enthusiasm we have been launching incredible amounts of mass into space. Cutting-edge technology promises to help us better understand our planet – from monitoring deforestation to the impact of industrial activity. It can also connect us everywhere, promising to improve life and open enormous new market opportunities.
The excitement is clouding our views of the potentially exorbitant side effects. This much mass, without self or governmental regulation, can and will prevent our utilization of the Low Earth Orbit. When one satellite crashes into another, the satellites catastrophically fragment into thousands of destructive objects – an outcome that is inherent in legacy satellite design. These objects then crash into and destroy other satellites, steadily creating even more debris. Debris begets debris. This collisional cascading leads to the Kessler Syndrome, in which so much debris travels through space it literally becomes a minefield.
The environmental disaster has already begun. Whether intentionally, through Anti-Satellite Missile testing, or unintentionally through the estimated 640 debris generating events experienced so far, we have already created an estimated 1 million orbiting pieces of un-trackable debris between 1cm and 10cm. There are also over 36,000 larger debris fragments. Remembering that a 5cm object traveling at 7,500 meters per second can damage a satellite, there are a lot of bullets to dodge in Low Earth Orbit.
While governments need to work together to prevent further debris generation, with an accord that considers cross-section and mass, society should not stand idly by and assume this will happen. Governments routinely fail at global agreements when economics are involved, and space is on track to become a bright economic star if we don’t destroy it first.
Governments and companies are rushing to take up as much space as possible, to utilize so much space they prevent others from gaining access. Space must not become a repeat of flag-planting, colonizing dominion and control. While the superpowers play this colonizing war game, smaller countries will lose access to the benefits of space for their own countries.
This leaves acting responsibly to those of us who feel compelled to do so. This is at the heart of the ESG movement and something we at E-Space are taking seriously. As I endeavor on my 3rd space venture, we are setting design objectives for sustainability in space that will be our North Star. We are designing-in sustainability, instead of making it an afterthought, and we believe we can achieve most, if not all, of these objectives in the near term:
"Large cross-section satellites crowd others from space and will cause collisional cascading and debris creation. Small cross-sections make satellites much less vulnerable to collision and LEO constellations should limit their individual and cumulative cross-sections. These figures should be tracked and considered relative to calculations on total orbital carrying capacity for individual altitudes to enable appropriate sharing."
"Satellites should be designed to fail into a high drag configuration where they passively, and quickly, de-orbit."
"In the event of an impact, satellites should be designed to minimize the number of new debris objects that are generated, with zero being the ideal goal."
"When a satellite strikes debris in space, it should entrain the debris rather than create more. Novel structures should be considered, in the satellite design and system architecture, to increase the likelihood of debris capture. This can be a proactive opportunity to reduce existing orbital debris."
"Satellites must fully demise upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere."
These commonsense tenants of space safety are essential to prevent us from destroying the potential of space to benefit all. I call on all those involved in the advancement of space to embrace these tenets so that we can preserve space for innovators today and in the future—and unleash the massive power of space for all of us here on Earth. If together we can achieve these objectives, we will not only prevent disasters in space but cleanse it of the debris created by others, keeping space available to everyone for generations to come.