Perspectives in AstroSustainability

AstroSustainability: Broadening Horizons

AstroSustainability: Broadening Horizons

Arty Goodwin

arthur.goodwin@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

 

Sustainability is something that is becoming ever more important in our daily lives. We are now more conscientious of the effect our habitual ways of living have on the environment. More recycling, less fossil fuels, and managing our impact on this one planet we inhabit. Yet, as humans launch an increasing number of satellites into orbit, it is clear we need to extend this mentality to our activities in space.

The concept of “Space Sustainability” already has a well understood definition: to use the environment of space to meet the current needs of society without compromising the needs of future generations. Already, firm guidelines have been spearheaded by the World Economic Forum to reduce the amount of debris in orbit (Clift, 2021). Rather than leaving spent rocket boosters to be a potential hazard hurtling into and smashing useful satellites — or even crewed spacecraft — organisations must deorbit any potential debris. Purposefully burning it up in the atmosphere is a preferred option. Or not even sending it up there at all! The newest generation of rockets promise to be partially if not fully reusable, for example SpaceX’s new ‘Starship’ (Rincon, 2021).

A computer-generated image representing the locations (sizes not to scale) of space debris seen from high Earth orbit. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO). Source: https://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/photo-gallery/

Decluttering low earth orbit is a more urgent need than many realise. With fears of triggering Kessler Syndrome (Bernat, 2020) — as portrayed in the 2013 film Gravity — it is possible that the junk we leave in orbit will crash into each other, creating more debris in a knock-on effect that will wipe out all satellites! Kurzgesagt has made a really cool video explaining both this problem and how it might be overcome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS1ibDImAYU&ab_channel=Kurzgesagt%E2%80%93InaNutshell. However, given a number of prospective missions planned to take robots and humans further out into the solar system, we also need to think beyond Earth.

AstroSustainability includes all activities outside the atmosphere. Broadly, it refers to exploring and utilising space in a forward thinking, low-impact, sustainable manner. This isn’t anything new! The 1967 Outer Space Treaty outlined that members should avoid harmful contamination of space and other bodies. Planetary protection has been around since a similar time — aimed at preventing contamination of other planets when landing on them with new robots. This has primarily been adhered to in order to prevent false positives of discovering life on Mars, for example, and doesn’t come cheap (Fairén and Schulze-Makuch, 2013)! However, as space exploration moves away from government organisations into private companies, there’s no guarantee these practices will be continued. Especially now there is new interest In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) on the moon and asteroids. Space mining, so to speak, extracting water and materials at the landing site to sustain missions crewed. Although this plans to make space travel cheaper (without the need to take everything we need with us) it also raises the potential issue for space pollution.

There needs to be continued open discussion about what space represents for humanity. AstroSustainability raises the question of whether everything outside of Earth should be treated as an international zone of science — similar to the Antarctic treaty — or if asteroids and other planets are a new frontier for exploration and exploitation. Either way, we need to reflect on the lessons we’ve only just learnt about responsible behaviour.

 

References:

Bernat, P., 2020. Orbital satellite constellations and the growing threat of Kessler syndrome in the lower Earth orbit. Inżynieria Bezpieczeństwa Obiektów Antropogenicznych.

Clift, K., (2021) We launched the first sustainability rating for space exploration. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/our-impact/world-s-first-space-sustainability-rating-launched/ (Accessed: 25/02/22)

Fairén, A., Schulze-Makuch, D. (2013) The overprotection of Mars. Nature Geosci 6, 510–511. https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1866

Rincon, P., (2021) What is Elon Musk’s Starship? Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55564448 (Accessed: 25/02/22)

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Related articles

News

State of NASA Astrobiology 2022

From NASA’s successful missions on the Red Planet, to more distant potentially habitable worlds like to Jupiter’s moon Europa and

News

British Science Week 2022

Getting involved in British Science Week is really easy, and you can take part in lots of different ways. Check

No more posts to show - why not creating yours?

About the blog

If you have ever wondered why life is the way it is, where do we come from, or what the future holds for us and our planet, then our blog is the ideal space for you.

Here you can either read news, stories, creative content and stay up to date with the latest discoveries, or take a step forward and write and submit your own pieces of writing. More information below!

‘Perspectives’ is divided into two main categories: Astrobiology and AstroSustainability. Click in either of the two to explore the different subtopics by either reading or writing. Enjoy!

Main categories

Interested in writing?

We are always lookng for enthusiastic science writers eager to contribute by submitting pieces of work. If you wish to do so, click on the button to go to the submission form. If you need further information, please do not hesitate in getting in touch: blog@astrobiologysociety.com

Astrobiology topics

AstroSustainability topics

We have made things easy for you

Register with us forever, for free, by simply filling your details below

Support our cause