Sustainable use of space

I was visiting Vienna and the Committee for Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) a few weeks ago. Here’s a talk I gave at a dinner hosted by Her Excellency, Ambassador of Finland in Austria, Pirkko Hämäläinen.

In the early 1600, the water in the island of Manhattan came mainly from a pond called the Collect Pond. As the population grew, Collect Pond was increasingly used, and gradually it became unusable. It was full of garbage and human waste. The New Yorkers started to haul water from Brooklyn, however, that was not enough. Towards the early 1800, there was a water crisis. Fires burned out of control, there were cholera epidemics killing thousands of people. The City decided to give all rights of supplying water to a company, which was more interested in getting money than delivering water. By 1820, the City realised they had to build a public water supply system. In 1842, the first waters were supplied. The people celebrated the event by parades. The supply of clean water formed the basis of the growth of the city that we see today.

This little story gives an example of what happens if no one owns the natural resources. Economists call this “The tragedy of commons”, or the problem of the common-pool resources. There are numerous similar examples throughout the human history.

A common way of contextualising sustainability is by a Venn diagram (below). It has three overlapping spheres, one for the economy, one for the people, and one for the environment. If we only care about the economy, both the people and the environmental resources suffer. If we only care about the people, we don’t profit and still the environmental resources suffer. If we only care about the environment, we don’t profit, but people can’t use the environmental resources, either. It is in the centre of the diagram, where the sustainable development is made. We care equally about the environment, the people, and we make profit. This kind of operation makes the resources viable in the long run.

In the last decade, we have started to utilise space more than ever before. Between 1957 and about 2010, on average about a hundred satellites were launched to space annually. Between 2010 and 2015, the average number was about 150 new satellites. Between 2017 and 2020, the number was 400. Last year, it was over 1200. There are existing plans to put tens of thousands of new satellites to space in the coming years. Before 2010, the main motivation for the satellites were civil use and defence, after 2010 the main motivation is commercial use.

In fact, I have often said that we are now living a similar period as we did after the new continents were found. In 1500s, there were multiple explorations to map the planet Earth, and once we knew what is out there, we started to economically exploit the new lands. Now, we know how to go to space, and what is out there, so we are then starting to exploit it economically.

At the same time, space is becoming ordinary, so every-day life that we don’t necessarily remember that some services require space. A good example is the navigation in your cell phone. You just put the map application to advice you, without thinking that the signal that guides your application comes from satellites.

When using space increases, also our dependency on space increases. Banks and telecommunication use satellite-based time stamps. Satellite TV and phone. Weather forecasts and monitoring climate change from space. Various Earth observation applications, for example determining the water content on fields to optimise crops. Intelligence. Internet. Without these applications our current way of life is impossible.

The economic use of space is rapidly increasing. The current value of the space sector is a bit less than 400 billion dollars. Reports issued by investment banks estimate that the size of the space sector in 2040s is about a trillion dollars. We are pumping money to space and at the same time becoming dependent on space.

What are the consequences?

Each launch means more than one space object. As a result of all the launches since 1957, there is 8000 tons of debris in space. Decommissioned satellites, rocket fuel tanks, and smaller objects caused by collisions between larger objects. There are about 128 million objects in space currently, and on average about 12.5 debris-creating events every year. If the current situation continues, at some point the space may become unusable. In fact, some orbits are already unusable.

In space, both large and tiny objects are a risk. Since space is basically empty, friction to the objects is negligible. Therefore, each object, big or small, moves with the original speed of the object. A small, 1-gram paint particle has the same momentum as a fist-size rock hitting your wind shield on a motorway. There is a famous picture of the International Space Station window with a bullseye in the centre, and empty space beyond.

One of the worst threats is the bus-sized satellite called Envisat. Envisat is a zombie satellite. The European Space Agency lost contact to it, so Envisat is like a truck with its driver collapsed on the wheel with foot still pressing the accelerator pedal. Envisat is traversing one of the most used highways of space, a 750-km altitude polar orbit. If it collides with an object, that orbit may never be used again.

Considering the Venn diagram in space, we are currently caring about the economic return. We are caring about people because we are providing space-based applications that enable our current way of life. But we are not caring for the environment, so we are not operating in the centre of the diagram that provides a long-term sustainability.

But, now comes the important part. In space, the environment is not just how much debris we have. It is also about the weather in space; the conditions that can harm satellites. These conditions are very dynamic, and they are the main contributor to the fact that we have debris in the first place. Sudden bad weather in space will inevitably mean dead satellites, and even satellites coming down from their orbits, like we saw in February when Starlink lost 40 of its satellites due to a sudden small space weather event.

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space concentrates into the space environment with a holistic view. We aim to prevent the formation of new debris. This means we measure the most important space weather aspect that contributes to debris: This is radiation in space. We also develop cost-efficient de-orbiting technologies. The idea is to understand the environment so that we can build durable satellites, and to re-allocate the orbit space after the satellite mission is over. So, we are considering the orbits as assets that need to be taken care of, instead of used indefinitely.

Your excellencies: Towards the end of the talk, I would like to assess the current situation world-wide a bit more closely. In terms of the Venn diagram, we are well of in terms of the economy and the people. But, we are severely neglecting the environment. There are important initiatives to understand the amount of debris, but this is only the half of the story. We are not investing – and I mean this literally – we are putting zero euros in measuring the space physical environment in the future. The last European space physics mission Cluster is being decommissioned soon. NASA has launched THEMIS, van Allen Probes and MMS missions, but they are also not having any future plans to measure our planetary environment.

The link between space physics and space debris is strong. We know many space weather phenomena, but since we do not understand them quantitatively, we cannot predict what is happening in space. This is exactly why Elon Musk lost 40 satellites this February.

We need to care for the space environment. This means that together with the debris programmes, we should continue the space physics programmes. We are so critically dependent of the space-based applications, and we have billions at stake in space. I think we cannot afford to neglect measuring space. We need new space physics missions in Europe and elsewhere, otherwise we do not know what is coming.

Thank you!