In an effort to reduce the amount of space debris circling the Earth, the World Economic Forum and its partners are working on a Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) that will indicate how well satellite operators and launchers are complying with space debris mitigation guidelines. Based on a concept by the Forum's Global Future Council on Space Technologies, the rating system is designed to reward responsible behavior by both government and private sectors.
According to ESA, there are over 22,000 pieces of man-made debris, totaling some 7,600 tonnes, orbiting the Earth. In the vastness of space that may amount to less than a rounding error, but these dormant satellites, old boosters, paint flecks, and various bits of shrapnel left over from satellite collisions are flying about at hypersonic speeds, so a particle the size of a grain of sand can cause as much damage as a .50 caliber bullet.
This threat has long been recognized, but one hurdle that needs to be overcome is convincing those who build and operate spacecraft that it's worthwhile to cooperate with proposed guidelines.
"There are numerous debris reduction and mitigation guidelines that can be applied at the design, manufacturing, launching, operating or disposal stage of any mission, but the challenge has been getting the global community to apply these in a consistent way," says Holger Krag, Head of ESA's Space Debris Office. "Applying these guidelines generally adds cost or reduces the useful life of a satellite, even if only slightly, so it's always been a tough sell."
Being developed in partnership with ESA and MIT's Media Lab with support from the University of Texas at Austin and Bryce Space and Technology, the SSR is described as being similar to the LEED certification used by the construction industry that shows potential customers how well firms operate in an environmentally friendly manner. The hope is that the SSR will encourage not only missions with less debris, but also spark new innovations.
"The global economy depends on our ability to operate satellites safely in order to fly in planes, prepare for severe weather, broadcast television and study our changing climate," says Danielle Wood, founder and director MIT Media Lab's Space Enabled research group. "In order to continue using satellites in orbit around Earth for years to come, we need to ensure that the environment around Earth is as free as possible from trash leftover from previous missions."
The new SSR initiative was announced today at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, DC.
The animation below shows the debris orbiting the Earth at different scales.
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