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Sustainability guidelines could help solve the growing problem of trash in space

Not content with trashing our own planet, it seems that humanity has caused a growing problem with space debris as well. As we rely increasingly on satellites for everything from weather forecasting to navigation, humans have fired more and more of them into orbit — which is now filled with discarded satellites, upper stages of rockets, and assorted other bits of space junk as a result.

There are a number of inventive research projects that aim to find ways to pluck this orbiting trash out of the cold expanse of space. However, a better, more suitable solution would involve making sure that we stop polluting in this way to begin with. With that in mind, a new set of “Space Sustainability Rating” guidelines aims to ensure that future satellite operators and space launches comply with special mitigation rules laid out by the so-called Space Debris Office (yes, that’s a real thing!)

The guidelines are being developed by the World Economic Forum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, and European Space Agency (ESA) based on a concept initiated by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies.

Distribution of space debris in orbit around Earth

“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,” said Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, in a statement.

According to the organizations involved, there are currently upward of 22,000 debris objects in orbit that are regularly tracked using radar and other methods. Colliding with any of these could damage or destroy a functioning satellite. That’s the case even when the debris is tiny, since their extremely high speeds make them into projectiles similar to bullets that are able to inflict amounts of damage far beyond their small size. Last year, ESA-operated satellites had to conduct 27 debris avoidance maneuvers, and that number is only expected to grow on a year-by-year basis.

Abiding by these guidelines will almost certainly add to the cost or reduce the life span of future satellites. As a result, calls for such rules in the past have typically been met with resistance. If something is going to be done about this issue, however, it’s important to get all involved on the same page. Hopefully that’s exactly what these guidelines will accomplish.

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