Earth's orbits are at risk of overcrowding - then what?

Opinion: Dr Priyanka Dhopade cautions we'll pay a heavy price unless the space industry is incentivised to develop and maintain environmental standards.

Illustration of Earth, surrounded by debris floating in space

The global space industry is worth US$546 billion and expected to triple in the next decade. The domestic aerospace sector, catalysed by Rocket Lab USA’s privately owned launch site at Māhia Peninsula, the fourth busiest site in the world, is primed to be worth NZ$10 billion by 2030.

Growth of the industry is currently driven by commercial demand for satellite data services, while future growth may be driven by the resource economy with in-space services such as manufacturing and mining. Manufacturing certain products like fibre optic cables and pharmaceuticals in microgravity increases their quality and profitability on Earth, for instance, while refuelling and servicing satellites in orbit could increase their life.

The public response to the growing space industry in New Zealand has been largely positive, as evidenced by a rising demand for aerospace engineering undergraduate programmes at the universities of Auckland and Canterbury. Rocket Lab USA’s founder, Peter Beck, was made a Knight Companion this year for his services to the aerospace industry, business and education.

But this growth and progress is punctuated by drastic environmental and social upheavals, both domestically and internationally. Between pandemic disruption, political uncertainty, global climate action and extreme weather events, we are wary of the uncertainty the future will hold. There is a risk that future upheavals will exceed our capacity to respond and adapt, and space is not exempt from such risk.

The space sector plays a key role in climate change adaptation by providing accurate and timely satellite data, but struggles to contend with its own environmental footprint, and the risk of not doing so. In contrast to the forecasted economic gains, the sector can’t seem to extrapolate its own environmental and socio-cultural impacts.

Already, more than 80 percent of objects in Earth’s orbits are junk. It has taken decades to develop effective regulations for space debris mitigation globally, and we continue adding to the total number of objects in orbit. The latest estimate of objects greater than 1mm in size is above 100 million. This has created a serious and also dangerous problem. These objects are orbiting the Earth at 15km/s – discarded components of satellites, rockets, and the fragmented debris generated by collisions and explosions – which pose a serious threat to all spacecraft and our continued access to space.

Space sustainability initiatives appear to be driven by economic interests rather than environmental concerns.. This myopic view of sustainability has created a misguided sense of growth within the space industry.

We could reasonably expect that this knowledge would have led to systemic solutions to this problem. Instead, ‘space junk’ has generated its own ‘junk economy’: new business opportunities in orbital debris mitigation and removal, collision avoidance and satellite insurance services. In other words, space sustainability initiatives still appear to be driven by economic interests, rather than environmental concerns.

This myopic view of sustainability has created a misguided sense of growth within the space industry.

Rocket launch emissions are predicted to undo decades of ozone recovery, especially as the number of launches are expected to double by 2026. There are no environmental standards in place to monitor or regulate launch emissions. Most businesses that make up the supply chain are not incentivised, resourced, nor have the capacity to collect the required information, like greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, resource use, and waste.

Our unsustainable trajectory

Imagine this: The year is 2070, and the world has done nothing to regulate the global space economy. Our orbits are crowded, polluted, and existing satellite operators must pay exorbitant insurance and collision avoidance fees.

Services we took for granted, like GPS, broadband internet, and Earth observation data are more expensive and unreliable than ever. Many high-tech sectors that relied on space data have collapsed, including agriculture, and the economy is under pressure. There is an imminent threat of war as orbital resources are controlled by the Big Four: US, China, Russia, and India. Taxpayers are funding orbital clean-up – a futile activity, because debris is being generated faster than we can remove it.

Our climate action has slowed because it has become too time-consuming to collect land-based data on environmental health, and we have regressed on most of our Sustainable Development Goals. Our ozone layer has depleted significantly due to what we now refer to as the Launch Rush of the 2030s, when we launched rockets daily and re-entered gigatons of objects into Earth’s atmosphere. Radiation-induced illnesses are the new health crisis. Injuries and deaths from crashing space junk are so routine, they no longer make headlines.

We are no closer to understanding the origins of life in the universe because ground-based telescopes can no longer see through the bright mega-constellations traversing the sky. In-space telescopes and laboratories have long been destroyed by space debris.

Our ancestors looked to the stars with wonder, but we now look to them with fear and regret.

We can also learn from the lessons of many global sectors, such as mining, energy, and plastics. Their unrestrained growth caused extensive environmental damage, biodiversity loss, and violation of Indigenous rights. Following significant public and political pressures, they are now adopting more sustainable practices

The fallacy of unconstrained growth

We will have paid a heavy price for a multi-trillion-dollar global space industry. This is the crux of the problem: we do not have a clear grasp on the true cost-benefit ratio of this industry, or fully understand the consequences of such unconstrained growth and progress. We can’t rely on technical solutions to solve this problem either.

As we grapple with the repercussions of unsustainable practices on and off Earth, we must reconsider our values, and the basis for this uncontrolled trajectory. We can scrutinise our colonial aspirations of ‘settling’, ‘conquering’ and ‘extracting from’ space. These aspirations are historically rooted in the pursuit of resource exploitation, territorial expansion, and the imposition of external governance, with no regard for people or the environment.

Shifting the paradigm

Instead, we can take integrated and intergenerational approaches to managing our terrestrial and space environments. We can learn from Indigenous societies around the world, including Māori in Aotearoa, on balancing economic priorities with shared values. For instance, the Māori concept of whakapapa considers local geographical entities like rivers and mountains as ancestors – an immutable part of their genealogy. This strong spiritual connection contributes to sophisticated environmental monitoring and inter-generational planning, approaches that are increasingly implemented in national climate change actions.

We can also learn from the lessons of many global sectors, such as mining, energy, and plastics. Their unrestrained growth caused extensive environmental damage, biodiversity loss, and violation of Indigenous rights. Following significant public and political pressures, they are now adopting more sustainable practices to mitigate their impact, like continuous monitoring and adherence to environmental standards, technological innovations, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge.

For the space sector, I believe we can proactively avoid the same traps, the same neo-liberal mindsets that have generated the environmental degradation and social inequality we see today.

The way forward

We need circular and regenerative economic models that can incentivise the space industry to adhere to environmental standards and prioritises sustainability as a driving force, rather than a limitation.

We need space companies that are building launch or ground-based infrastructure to co-develop governing principles with local Indigenous groups. The Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre is one such example of a partnership approach.

We need consistent standards on environmental reporting across the space industry. Pollutants from launches and re-entries, and life cycle emissions from manufacturing need to be monitored and mitigated. We need to better understand the countless applications of satellite data, and invest equal effort into regulating their ethical use, just as we are doing with artificial intelligence.

In the long term, social licence and the aerospace narrative in New Zealand is subject to its shifting demographics, such as younger generations who will have grown up with the climate crisis. Any innovation pipeline that is expected to generate public excitement about the aerospace sector may need to emphasise the long-term benefits of the activity rather than the inherent achievement of the activity. We need to be honest about the environmental, social, and legal tradeoffs of our elite position in the global space arena.

Our presence in space mirrors our ambitions and fallacies. We are being presented with a choice of priorities for New Zealand’s future. Let us choose wisely.

Dr Priyanka Dhopade is a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, Faculty of Engineering

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, In space, as on Earth, NZ has environmental duties, 21 July, 2024 

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