19 – 21 November 2024//Bremen, Germany



Pulling Together on In-space Sustainability: From Debris Mitigation, to Legislation, to ISAM

Sustainability and space used to be in two very different siloes. Yet nowadays, the two go hand in hand more than ever. The safe use of space is imperative to the successful use of its downstream applications, microgravity research and exploration missions. Knowing space is safe to use through space debris mitigation, space situational awareness and space traffic management is key.

Space debris remains the number one challenge when it comes to in-space safety and sustainability. As of June 2023, it is estimated that there are 34,300 debris objects tracked by the Space Surveillance Networks and being kept an eye on by them. However, it is expected that there are thousands more objects that currently go unnoticed but are certainly floating around. The problem will only significantly grow with many more launches planned for the remainder of 2023. 

There are reasons to be optimistic however. To maintain and guarantee this safety, many groups across the globe are working on legislation. As we speak, industry is pulling together to think about and implement guidelines to mitigate space debris.

The United Nations has combined the key standards currently adopted by States and international organisations in its Space Debris Compendium, providing insight into where these regulations and guidelines are at the moment. 

More recently, and together with ESA, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations, which is supported by some, but not all, major operators. 

The document recommends a couple of key areas in the short term, including: post-mission disposal; collision avoidance, manoeuvrability and propulsion technology; increased data sharing and better traffic management within Earth’s orbits; and putting in place financial measures such as insurance mechanisms, third party liability insurance and cost-sharing schemes.

On the longer term, the WEF recommends governments to take responsibility for legislation to be put in place or setting examples for end-of-life equipment or the implementation of active debris removal services. It also recommends industry actors to get a better understanding of the environmental capacity and how much we can actually launch into Earth’s orbits – especially low-Earth orbit (LEO). 

As the above collaborations confirm, bringing together all parties in the industry and across the globe is a challenge – not all international parties agree on the same terms, while lengthy legislative processes can also slow down innovation.

A developing market that will be able to provide solutions to the space debris challenge as well as wider space sustainability, is the in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) part of the industry. This sector is in its growing phase and has companies across the globe popping up providing technology that will help service satellites, assemble in-space infrastructures and eventually allow for in-space manufacturing.

While these will be invaluable to the servicing of satellites, as well as assisting in end-of-life capabilities, the ISAM sector will also allow for developing safe future in-space infrastructure. As we are slowly approaching the retirement of the International Space Station (ISS) by the early 2030s, industry is working hard on developing commercial space stations that can support future LEO  microgravity research and other scientific research capabilities currently seen on the ISS. 

Allowing for in-space assembly means that smaller structures can be sent to space, on rockets using less fuel, and then assembling these infrastructures in orbit. It remains to be seen how this part of the sector will establish itself as it is still in its infancy; the technology is difficult and expensive, and there is need to understand how a healthy supply and demand dynamic will develop itself following investment in this market.

The upcoming Space Tech Expo Europe conferences cover many of the topics, challenges and technologies shared in this blog. Join us on Wednesday November 15 in our focused sessions with expert speakers, including the Collaborating on Standards and Legislation for Sustainable and Safe In-space Operations and Awareness panel, the Space Debris Mitigation Tech Spotlight, the Defining the Future of In-space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing for Sustainable Assets panel, and the Preparing LEO For Future Microgravity Research Capabilities: Getting Ready for Post-ISS Infrastructures panel. 

Space Tech Expo Europe takes place on 14-16 November in Bremen, Germany. Alongside the three-day Industry Conference, the event also hosts the Smallsats Conference and the Mobility Connectivity Conference. To secure your seat, please register here