Last year, the launch date of the much-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was moved from the 23rd to the 25th of December due to a risk of collision with a piece of space debris, according to the European Space Agency (ESA) launcher directorate. That space debris was able to delay the launch of a multi-billion-dollar telescope attests to how big of a problem the proliferation of space debris has become.
The rapid growth of space industry brings many benefits to us all down there on Earth. But decades of unsustainable practices have led to congested orbits, and accelerated proliferation of space debris posing a major risk to satellites, space exploration and other scientific missions. And the problem is only growing. Currently, there are over one million objects larger than 1 cm orbiting the Earth, and more than 60,000 satellites are planned to be launched in the next decade – putting the capacity of Earth orbit to safely accommodate new space objects at risk.
It is therefore of dire importance that space actors plan the most sustainable missions possible for the long-term use of the space environment. To help incentivise these space operators, a consortium including the World Economic Forum (WEF), ESA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), BryceTech, and the University of Texas at Austin developed the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR), which eSpace was chosen to host in 2021.
The SSR is a voluntary rating system providing space actors with a simple and impactful instrument for space actors to measure sustainability design and actions comprehensively, capturing the different mission’s elements and using a series of recognised and tested metrics.
“As of today, there is no shared definition of what sustainable behaviour in space means globally, and quantifying, assessing, and verifying international guidelines for space sustainability remains challenging,” says Minoo Rathnasabapathy, Research Engineer, Space Enabled Research Group at MIT and SSR ambassador. “The SSR helps bridge this gap by offering an original and hands-on framework for space operators to evaluate the sustainability level of their missions.”
By engaging with the SSR, satellite and spacecraft manufacturers can obtain transparent and data-based assessments of the level of sustainability of space missions, providing a clear picture of where their missions and operations stand in terms of sustainability, identify areas where improvements can be made, and publicly share the rating’s outcomes.
“Incentivising better behaviour by having space actors compete on sustainability will create a race to the top,” Nikolai Khlystov of the World Economic Forum said of the SSR in 2021.
The six-year development process of the SSR involved a number of operators, including SpaceX, Planet, the EPFL Spacecraft Team, OneWeb, Axelspace, and Airbus in the beta-testing phase to ensure the tool’s accuracy and practicability from a user perspective.
The launch at the Space Sustainability Summit hosted by the Secure World Foundation and the UK Space Agency in June offered an opportunity to showcase the impactful approach and methodology, as demonstrated by the presentation of the first official rating to Stellar, a telecommunications company and founding member of the SSR.
“Innovative, collaborative, and practical solutions will be critical to the safety of current and future space missions and infrastructure we depend on,” says Florian Micco, Project Manager for the Space Sustainability Rating. “The SSR aims to serve as an impactful incentive to guide space actors’ efforts in improving their overall sustainability. eSpace’s expertise and network will help to grow the SSR and leverage best practices for more sustainable, responsible, and safer behaviours in space.”
Developed by members of the consortium who are experts in the fields of space debris, astrodynamics, technology policy, and space economics, the SSR rates missions relying on modules to evaluate their level of potential harmful physical interference, their collision avoidance process, how they share data, how their design will allow observers to track the object(s), the compliance with international standards, and their willingness and ability to receive external services.
Participating space operators in the SSR are given a “bronze”, “silver”, “gold”, or “platinum” badge depending on the outcomes of a comprehensive assessment process based on six modules. Then a second score is calculated that allows operators to earn additional credits for going over and above the baseline rating. These bonuses are reported separately and do not contribute to the baseline rating, but is an honourable mention represented by stars. For example, for the first official rating, Stellar received a bronze badge with one star. Operators can then share these ratings, making it in their best interest to plan the most sustainable missions possible.
“We are honoured to have received the first Space Sustainability Rating,” says Damien Garot, the CEO of Stellar, “as sustainability is essential, on Earth and in space. And we will continue to work with the SSR association to improve the sustainability of our missions.”
Along with the rating itself, the SSR also provides a detailed report about steps operators could take to raise their ratings, such as changes to their spacecraft design or further information that they could share.
“The Space Sustainability Rating could be a game changer in the way space missions are carried out,” says Jean-Paul Kneib, Academic Director of eSpace.
The objective of the SSR is to establish itself as a non-profit organization to guarantee the rating system’s independence and fairness, as well as to collaborate with all stakeholders from the space sector. Over the past year, the SSR has received financial support from the Swiss Space Office. In the future, the SSR aims to generate enough revenue to cover operation costs, lead research to enhance its approach, and grow the rating through operators paying for ratings and membership fees.
Luckily the demand for the SSR – unique in its kind – is gaining traction. Stellar and Nihon University in Japan, who will head the development of a regional-hub for the SSR in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, joined as founding members in the first quarter of 2022. And in the weeks ahead of the launch, ALTER group, EnduroSat, Privateer, the Secure World Foundation and Slingshot Aerospace joined as members as well, and are providing the SSR with important expertise to enhance the rating system and ensure its relevance and accuracy.
“Fast growth in the space sector is only possible if done sustainably,” says Raycho Raychev, the Founder and CEO of EnduroSat. “That’s why we are proud to join this unique international effort to advance sustainability in orbit.”
In the past few years, EPFL has become a leader in space safety and dealing with the issue of space debris. In May, two EPFL centers, eSpace and the International Risk Governance Center (IGRC), helped host the first Kinetic Space Safety Workshop. These two centers have been also been working together on the issue along with EPFL Space Innovation since 2020, including on two IRGC publications, Collision risk from space debris: Current status, challenges and response strategies and Policy options to address collision risk from space debris. eSpace’s work on space debris is part of the center’s ongoing research initiative on Sustainable Space Logistics, in partnership with Space Innovation.
EPFL is also coordinating Switzerland’s participation in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the biggest radio telescope ever built. This telescope will allow researchers to study some of the universe’s greatest mysteries with an unprecedented level of precision. SKA, and the Swiss consortium SKACH, are also focused on sustainability by building the telescopes in remote locations, working with local and indigenous populations, and working to ensure dark and quiet skies to keep the night sky a sustainable resource for all.
“With the launch of the Space Sustainability Rating and Switzerland joining the SKA, we at EPFL are further solidifying our position as leaders in making space a more sustainable place to operate,” says Kneib. “For those of us working in the space field, it is our job to help ensure space is kept safe for the next generations.