Earth monitoring from space

Now is the perfect time to build Britain’s green space credentials

Image credit: Dezzor/Dreamstime

COP26 provides the UK space industry with a springboard to establish itself as a global leader in the sector. Success relies on effective collaboration and taking a more holistic approach to its impact on the environment, society and economy.

More than three decades after the height of the US Space Shuttle programme, space travel is once again making the news. Recent investment and initiatives by billionaires have highlighted the potential of ‘space tourism’ and commercial space flight. At the same time, the considerable carbon footprint of these journeys has shone a spotlight on the sustainability issues associated with travelling into space, whether for recreational, commercial, or scientific purposes.

The UK is committed to making the space industry more sustainable, working closely with its partners in the United Nations to ensure long-term space sustainability. Now, having recently become the first European country to introduce a framework for launching satellites and spacecraft from its home soil, the UK has a real opportunity to lead the space industry in a holistic effort to change the narrative around its environmental impact.

The space industry has a sustainability challenge. The carbon footprint of recent commercial spaceflight journeys is enormous, with the carbon dioxide emissions of each flight estimated to be around 100 times that of a standard commercial passenger flight. When you consider that Virgin Galactic alone hopes to offer 400 such flights per year, the potential environmental impact of the space tourism industry is worryingly high.

Space junk, too, has become an issue. ESA estimates there are currently about 34,000 objects larger than 10cm in orbit around the Earth, 3,000 of which are redundant satellites. Each of these objects moves at around 10km per second, representing a substantial threat to the integrity of operational satellites or even the International Space Station.

There is a real need, therefore, to tackle both the environmental consequences of space flight and the growing space junk problem. With recent announcements about its future as a centre of space flight in Europe, the UK has an opportunity to step up and lead the charge.

July 2021 saw the passing of the Government’s Space Industry Regulations, described as a step toward space exploration from UK soil. Providing a framework for regulating the UK space industry as well as enabling launches to take place from British soil from 2022, the regulations are set to unlock a potential £4 billion worth of market opportunities and create thousands of jobs over the next decade. But, while this development is very welcome, there is a responsibility to ensure spaceflight from the UK is done in the right way, with due consideration for its environmental impact and with measures taken to make the space sector as sustainable as possible.

The UK is already actively working on sustainability measures, of course. It’s the leading contributor to the European Space Agency’s Space Safety programme, for example, and delegates from the UK Space Agency have played a key role in developing and agreeing the UN’s Long Term Sustainability Guidelines, funding a project with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs focused on helping to raise awareness and implement those guidelines. At the G7 summit in June, Boris Johnson and other leaders pledged to take action to tackle the growing issue of space junk.

There’s still more that could be done, though, particularly at a time when populations around the world are experiencing unprecedented extreme weather events due to the effects of global warming. Defra and other government bodies in particular have a role to play in addressing space beyond the Kármán line as a part of the environment.

A more holistic approach to space technology - and in particular to its environmental, societal, and economic impacts - is needed. By encouraging continued innovation and investment in new fuels, materials, technologies, manufacturing processes and designs, the industry as a whole can embrace the concept of ‘green space’ and make spaceflight itself - and the broader space industry - more sustainable.

My company Skyrora, for example, has developed Ecosene, an eco rocket fuel that not only uses waste plastics but also produces 45 per cent lower emissions than traditional kerosene, effectively killing two birds with one stone. 3D printing technology can be a game-changer, too, significantly reducing the carbon cost of the processes typically associated with manufacturing a spacecraft or satellite. And Skyrora’s development of a mission-ready orbital transfer vehicle, or ‘space tug’, capable of performing a number of in-space missions, means it’s now possible to tackle the issue of space junk by removing redundant objects from orbit.

We need more stakeholders in the UK space sector - from early-stage innovators to major players - to put their focus on developing solutions to these problems.

Greater consideration should also be given to the role the space industry can play in mitigating the effects of climate change, including through facilitating the launch and deployment of Earth observation systems that can enable early detection and warning of extreme weather events, or locate previously undetected subterranean resources.

The space sector has attracted a great deal of negativity for its environmental impact, especially recently, with the advent of space tourism. But the tide is beginning to turn, with international initiatives and codes of conduct concerned with improving the sustainability of space travel.

Importantly, this impact needs to be considered holistically. The industry needs to think beyond simply reducing fuel emissions, and towards ways of addressing issues such as tackling space junk and mitigating the effects of global warming. Crucially, this will demonstrate a commitment to engaging the general public in the conversation as well.

Without the involvement of civil society, the space sector simply won’t be able to shift the dial in the same way to enact change. The UK space industry has the opportunity to use COP26 in particular as a springboard, working collaboratively with other industries to attract the attention of the public and create a more significant impact.

Recent developments mean the UK is in a strong position to lead on this more comprehensive approach, for a greener future both in space and here on Earth.

Alan Thompson is head of government affairs at Skyrora.

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