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Report urges action to prevent collisions in cluttered space environment

Professional Engineering

An illustration of space junk in orbit. The destruction of satellites can spread large amounts of dangerous debris (Credit: Shutterstock)
An illustration of space junk in orbit. The destruction of satellites can spread large amounts of dangerous debris (Credit: Shutterstock)

Operators, governments and regulators must take coordinated action to reduce space debris, enhance safety and better manage the expansion of ‘mega constellations’ in low Earth orbit (LEO), a new report has said.

Published today (22 June), the Space Sustainability Report by satellite communications company Inmarsat recommends standards to improve operations in the ‘deteriorating’ space environment.

Produced in partnership with research firm AstroAnalytica, the recommendations include actions to prevent collisions in orbit, curb anti-satellite missile testing, improve the disposal of satellites, introduce penalties to boost sustainability amongst operators, and limit monopolistic practices amongst new industry entrants or governments.

Almost 10,000 tonnes of satellite and rocket objects are currently in orbit, according to the report, including an estimated 130m pieces of space debris. These figures could increase dramatically as more so-called mega constellation projects like SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites prepare for launch.

“The time has come to address sustainability in space with a coherent plan to address the growing problem of debris, satellite congestion and the absence of agreed international standards in our industry,” said Rajeev Suri, chief executive of Inmarsat.

“We need a new mindset and a new approach to environmentalism in space, which will become increasingly important amid industry plans for a massive increase in satellite launches into LEO that will increase the risk of collisions and potential atmospheric contamination.”

The report highlights concerns about the mid-to-long term usability and sustainability of space, with knock-on implications for vital services provided by satellite operators for global connectivity and communications, including mobile telecoms networks, in-flight communications, defence applications, and scientific research.

According to Suri, the three ‘primary areas’ for action should be:

  • “To address the growing risk of catastrophic incidences in space stemming from space debris
  • “To enhance understanding and actions to address environmental hazards in space, and acknowledge their potential impact on climate change
  • “To regulate and curb predatory practices carried out by some commercial and governmental satellite operators.”

Among the hazards highlighted by the report is the threat posed by anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing, which has been carried out by the US, Russia, China and India in recent years, with resultant space debris. The report calls on more nations to implement ASAT testing moratoriums as soon as possible.

Recommendations to counter debris and enhance sustainability include strengthening existing regulators as well as improving coordination amongst UN agencies, such as the G7 countries that have significant satellite interests, national governments, standards bodies, and the space industry itself.

The proposals also suggest expanding the remit of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) from the mobile network spectrum to regulation of LEO constellations, and to coordinate technical sustainability criteria for satellite launches.

Other initiatives include proposals for a points-based penalty system for satellite operators, linked to the licensing process for new launches and constellation management.

“Robust and bold steps are needed to arrest the deteriorating state of the space environment,” said Suri. “This report sets out measures and recommendations to ensure that space can be a domain that can sustain commercial, scientific, and national security activities for generations to come.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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