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World Space Week | Space and sustainability

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

World Space Week has been running every year since 1999, with over 90 countries’ involvement across the globe. Each year there is a different theme which acts as a means to provide a locus for discussion, education, and participation across various events held worldwide.

In 2022, World Space Week is running from October 4th to October 10th, and the theme is space and sustainability.

Sustainability is a universal issue, on Earth and in space

The final frontier is increasingly becoming the frequented frontier. As of January 2022, 4852 satellites were found to be orbiting the Earth. However, satellites pose a threat. Ever since the the global ban of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) the ozone has been healing. A byproduct of satellites is aluminium oxide, which reflects sunlight and furthers the depletion of the ozone layer. With over 40,000 Starlink satellites planned to go into orbit in the future, we need to consider ways to protect our ozone layer from further harm. The lack of a unified body to monitor and regulate Starlink’s project is a cause for great concern. The light pollution from 40,000 satellites being launched into orbit is already pretty substantial, let alone the wider ramifications.

Not only are satellites a potential issue, there is a fair degree of left over scraps lingering about in space — retired rockets, bits of paint from old satellites, garbage bags, nuts and bolts, the ashy remains of Laika the Soviet space dog, and… a spatula.

What is space junk?

Space junk is, quite simply, the rubbish us humans have left behind in space. At present, there is an estimated 7,600 tonnes of objects drifting about in low-Earth orbit (LEO). We don’t often think of the Milky Way clogged up like a busy motorway but that is getting closer to the truth with every coming year. Not only is this problematic if items falls back down to Earth (someone’s already been hit on the head by a defunct satellite remnant already) but it also makes space collisions far more likely. Considering how there soon will be numerous manned spacecraft travelling in LEO and Outer Space, such as commercial flights with Virgin Galactic, or Jeff Bezos-led Blue Origin, the results of a collision could be catastrophic.

Space junk orbiting Earth

What is Kessler syndrome?

Kessler syndrome is an idea proposed by NASA’s Donald Kessler in 1978 in which an excess of space junk in orbit leads to a disastrous chain reaction involving a surfeit of collisions, so many so that Earth’s orbit becomes entirely unusable. Humankind needs to come together to make sure a state of affairs like Kessler syndrome is avoided at all costs.

How is the world working towards increasing sustainability in space?

Fortunately, measures are being put in place to reduce the proliferation and likelihood of space junk, but there’s still a considerable amount of debris in LEO. Several projects have been started with the intention of improving our planet’s impact on space. For instance, McKinsey & Company have joined forces with the World Economic Forum to put together five actions for world leaders to work towards to maximise sustainability in space:

  • Create and implement effective space governance

  • Invest resources and effort in enabling technologies and capabilities

  • Incentivise collaboration among nations, sectors and industries

  • Foster a self-sustaining industrial base

  • Leverage the space sector more to advance sustainability and security

  • These are however mere goalposts. What is being done now to reduce our detrimental impact in space?

NASA and other space agencies are clamping down on reducing the release of mission-related objects such as lens covers and wraparound cables, as well as developing autonomous deorbiting functioning in future spacecraft to reduce the amount of debris in orbit. Another angle is to dissipate the energy of the craft following its usage by manipulating battery management systems to enhance energy efficiency.

One organisation, Airbus, are paving the way to sustainability through their RemoveDEBRIS project. There is already an experimental satellite in orbit that is hoovering up space junk as we speak. They are also the main contender in encouraging accountability and transparency within space exploration, which is certainly needed. Whilst Airbus are making significant strides, more organisations and projects need to come forward with the future of space and sustainability in mind.

diagram of satelite burning of re-entry into the atmosphere

Aura Flights - eco-friendly as can be

The team at Aura Flights can safely say we do not contribute to space junk because our flights operate at a lower altitude than satellites orbit, and travel at much lower speeds than orbiting bodies. The only thing that is left behind is the ashes themselves, which make their way peacefully down to the Earth’s surface, or tiny scraps of biodegradable latex balloon material which actually serve to enrich our soils.

Every aspect of the technology on board an Aura Flights launch vehicle is powered by reusable elements. Our spacecraft (made from low-impact materials and manufacturing methods) is also reused after every use. We have a 100% recovery rate of our craft to boot.

Naturally, we comply with all relevant environmental legislation, regulations, and appropriate codes of conduct, and are always looking for ways to find the most environmentally-friendly solution to a given situation. Sustainability through and through. If you'd like to find out more, explore Aura Flights’ environmental policies.

Aura Flights scatter vessel scattering ashes in space with Planet Earth below and space above


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