Environmentalism on Earth points the way to responsibility in space

The environmental policy of extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is increasingly popular on Earth and should be applied to the space economy. EPR incentivizes producers of goods to embed environmental stewardship into their designs and processes, rather than punishing them for transgressions. Producers of consumer electronics, for example, might be offered a choice between paying a steep landfill fee or participating in a recycling process that includes bins at the point of sale. If recycling is cheaper than the landfill fee, the producer now has an incentive to urge its customers to recycle rather than add to the landfill. 

Embracing EPR in the space environment could bring about a long overdue shift toward a circular space economy, meaning one in which space debris is reduced by reusing spent rocket casings and reviving dead satellites by servicing them, to give a couple examples. Such an approach would rejuvenate the space environment and would result, inter alia, in sustainable space operations.

Right now, we have a linear space economy that has pollution as an end-state. Humanity is fast running out of time to address the problem, given that governments and private companies around the world are already tracking some 30,000 anthropogenic objects, the majority of which are defunct satellites, rocket bodies or debris from them.

Obviously, our efforts to date to control debris have not succeeded. The international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee currently requires that newly launched satellites be designed to fall back into the atmosphere within 25 years, or be placed in out-of-the way graveyard orbits. As good as these intentions are, 25 years is a long time, there is no such thing as out of the way, and those who flout these rules suffer no financial or other costs. In reality, abandonment is the expected and designed end-state of nearly every satellite launched today, and this abandonment is why we are on a path toward a tragedy of the commons in which operators have so cluttered Earth orbit that humanity can no longer use it.

As surprising as it might be, we would not need any new international legal instruments to incorporate EPR into the space economy. The United Nations’ Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 1971 assigns to the “launching state” the responsibility for preventing or cleaning up space debris resulting from a space launch from its national territory and facilities. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 in Article VI requires each signing country to authorize and supervise the nongovernmental activities of any entity based in its jurisdiction. These legal instruments mean that a government could pass space laws anchored in environmentalism and sustainability and then require that companies operating under its jurisdiction agree to them and be held accountable for adhering to them.

What’s been missing is a standard way of judging an operator’s business plan and satellite designs for sustainability. Enter the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) system made live in June in an initial form by the Swiss engineering and science university EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne). This was done on behalf of a development team led by the World Economic Forum and comprised of Bryce Tech, the European Space Agency, MIT and the University of Texas at Austin. Spacecraft developers can submit an application to eSpace, the EPFL Space Center, and receive a sustainability rating that considers such factors as how recyclable the satellite is, how easy it is to track and identify, and how congested with traffic the intended orbit is. The higher the number, the more sustainable the requester’s mission. A government could require a prospective satellite operator in its jurisdiction to achieve a certain SSR value to obtain a license to launch and operate a satellite from its territory, and the operator might have to pay a fee if the value falls short. 

An EPR could be established to incentivize producers of satellites, rockets and components to score high on the SSR. For instance, a disposal fee could be tied to the SSR so that if I design my satellite to be easily reused or recycled, the better my rating and the lower my fee to launch and operate. The outcome of the EPR would be to instantiate and maintain a circular space economy and maximize space environmentalism and sustainability by design. Governments could require any company that they authorize to operate in space to adopt the EPR and then hold them accountable for any violations in the implementation through continuing supervision of space activities. 

Satellite and satellite component companies, as well as space launch companies, may find it challenging to be directly involved in their product’s end of life, in which case EPR allows for producers to delegate their responsibilities to a third party known as a “producer responsibility organization,” or PRO. It’s likely that if EPR were firmly established, one or more existing space companies would take on the role of a PRO. Making EPR a legal requirement for operating to, through and in orbital space would naturally lead to creating a marketplace for space debris reuse, recycling and disposal. 

To be sure, the entire responsibility of environmentalism and sustainability shouldn’t be on the shoulders of industry but shared between industry and government. Adopting EPR would make this sharing of responsibility a reality and make noncompliance a matter of enforcement. 

As a starting point, governments must muster the courage to make EPR part of their regulatory and legal frameworks and stand ready to deny space companies authorization to launch and operate unless they agree to this approach. If they do this, our current modus operandi of abandonment would become a relic of the past. 

About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Environmentalism on Earth points the way to responsibility in space