In the near future, space debris will become a critical challenge for the global community, endangering access to space and the benefits this access brings. In recent years, the close to $400 billion global space economy has experienced a transformation. Declining costs, satellite and launcher size evolutions and the proliferation of related technology has led to a surge in satellite launches, many of which are conducted by new space enterprises and nations. Over the coming years, thousands of payloads are expected to be launched by the commercial sector alone, adding to the 4,000 already active satellites in orbit. This transformation and rapid growth are anticipated to increase the space sector’s vital role in telecommunications, remote sensing, space science and national security, making it a vital node of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s infrastructure.
However, the rush in space activity is already adding to a crowded orbit. With approximately 25,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimetres tracked in orbit and many more untracked, the rise in space activity will lead to even more debris, increasing collision risk. The orbital environment is a globally shared resource where existing international guidelines steer space actors in their activities, however, these are not enforceable and derived standards are not always followed. Neither are guidelines expected to sufficiently curtail the creation of new debris caused by fundamental shifts in traffic. Therefore, an opportunity exists to provide a solution based on a multi-stakeholder approach built on public-private collaboration.
As the challenge of orbital debris or “space junk” is set to grow, current and future missions face an increasing risk of possible collisions. The Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) will provide a new, innovative way of addressing the orbital challenge by encouraging responsible behaviour in space through increasing the transparency of organizations’ debris mitigation efforts. The SSR will provide a score representing a mission’s sustainability as it relates to debris mitigation and alignment with international guidelines. Organizations will provide mission data through a questionnaire, which will be evaluated in combination with other external data through a mathematical model that establishes a rating for the mission. By voluntarily taking part in the rating, spacecraft operators, launch service providers and satellite manufacturers will share a single point of reference externally describing their mission’s level of sustainability. Making their aggregate score publicly available, these actors will increase transparency and place emphasis on their debris mitigation approach, without disclosing any mission-sensitive or proprietary information. The rating may also act as a differentiator and trigger positive outcomes (e.g. impacting insurance cost or funding conditions), incentivizing other stakeholders to improve their behaviour.
These scores will be based on factors ranging from data sharing, ability to verify information, choice of orbit, measures taken to avoid collisions, plans to de-orbit satellites on completion of missions, and even how well they can be detected and identified from Earth. The choice and characteristics of a launch provider will also have an impact on the score. There will be bonus marks for adding optional elements, such as de-orbiting fixtures, which could be used for the active removal of the object once its operational lifetime has been fulfilled. Of course, how well a mission adheres to international guidelines will also be taking into account.
The SSR concept was developed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies. For over two years, the Forum has been working with an international and transdisciplinary team to contribute to the definition of the technical elements and operations of the SSR. The SSR is being collaboratively developed by a consortium of entities – including the European Space Agency (ESA) and Space Enabled Research Group within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, in cooperation with the University of Texas at Austin, BryceTech and the Forum.
After a selection process, the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), based in Lausanne, has been selected to lead and operate the SSR, in preparation for the roll-out of the transparent system for scoring the space sustainability efforts of different space actors. During the following six months, the consortium will work with eSpace to transition the work. The SSR is expected to go "live" in early 2022.