12 Jun 2023

Sustainability in outer space: Why does it matter?

Sustainability in outer space.

Written by Matthew Flack, Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

Since the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, humans have continually cluttered Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with satellites and other space debris.

Post Sputnik, LEO has evolved into a crucial part of the infrastructure supporting our daily lives. For this reason, gradual overcrowding of space junk – consisting mostly of dead satellites – should concern us all.

What is going on up there?

The International Space Station and Hubble telescope both operate within LEO, while global communications, weather and navigation systems also utilise its close proximity (between 150km and 2,000 km altitude) to Earth.

However, LEO does not contain an infinite amount of space and is becoming increasingly crowded. It is estimated that there are currently 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth, alongside 3,000 defunct ones, taking up precious space and travelling at speeds of 25,000km per hour. What’s more, there’s over 30,000 hazardous pieces of space junk, any one of which could create chaos if it were to collide with another object in orbit.

Why should we be concerned?

As mentioned above, there’s a lot of important hardware flying around above us. A collision with a GPS, climate change monitor or security surveillance satellite (to name a few) could fatally disrupt the valuable service it’s providing us on Earth.

We are becoming increasingly reliant on LEO-based technology – even if we are often blissfully unaware of what’s going on above us. Without its capabilities, we would be decades behind in terms of our technological advancements. Looking ahead from a security perspective, much of the Ukraine war has been monitored and analysed via satellite imagery. So, if you weren’t sure about the importance of LEO before, now you know the crucial role it is currently playing on behalf of global security.

Before the threat spirals out of control and we inadvertently clutter LEO to such a degree that it becomes impossible for future space exploration, national governments, industry players and institutions must sit up, take note and take action.

A space saving solution is required

Finding a sustainable solution to clean up LEO will involve international co-operation, as no one nation owns this resource. How this will look remains unclear, but the global community will likely turn to technology to dispose of the clutter.

Ensuring space debris is either properly removed or refurbished to ensure end-of-life capabilities can be achieved in a sustainable manner is the aim. Parallel to how we must begin to lead more sustainable lives on Earth, we must also begin to consciously change the way we approach LEO. Failing to do so will unravel much of the technological progress that has been made in recent years, from domestic internet usage to national security surveillance.

Now is the time for the international community to harness technology for good. Let’s tidy up the mess we’ve made above our heads and free up space for further innovation and exploration.