The intensification of space activities, the growing number of objects in space and the emergence of new actors, are increasing the risk of collision and the amount of space debris. To this end, various national, European and global initiatives are currently addressing space debris. Among others, the UN COPUOS Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities and the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines were developed – which unfortunately experience too little compliance because these guidelines are voluntary and non-binding. In addition to the growing number of commercial activities, political tensions are transferred in space which increases the generation of space debris.
For instance, the direct-ascent anti- satellite test conducted by Russia in November last year created approx. 1.500 new pieces of orbital debris. What is required to tackle the challenge of increasing space debris?
First, the basis for the surveillance of the space environment and all further measures is sharing of technical SSA data. Even though the number of SSA data sharing agreements is increasing, there is still a big lack of information and data. The exchange of SSA data is still the necessary condition for further efforts and more data sharing agreements are needed.
Second, the challenging effort to establish a global STM framework is moving on slowly. STM is supposed to contribute to preventing collisions of satellites. The EU is working on a European STM framework in different projects, such as SPACEWAYS and EUSTM. Once a European common approach is fully developed and adopted, it can be proposed in multilateral discussions through UNCOPUOS. Third, space debris active removal has been gaining increasing relevance.
ESA identified active debris removal technologies as a strategic goal and is addressing this issue in its Clean Space initiative, looking at required technology developments to capture debris. Fourth, in-orbit-servicing and new technologies, such as collision avoidance, are pushed forward. Capabilities to repair space systems in space are key to mitigating space debris. Moreover, satellites equipped with collision avoidance systems can conduct avoidance manoeuvres.
This summer 2022 saw various efforts towards more sustainability and safety in space. For instance, in June, the Space Sustainability Rating was launched, which aims to increase the transparency of space debris mitigation efforts by providing a score representing the sustainability of a mission. Since there is only limited compliance to international space debris mitigation guidelines (such as UN COPUOS LTS-guidelines), new incentivising concepts to ensure long-term sustainability in space need to be developed.