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COP 26 and Space Sustainability

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is starting October 31st. Six years after the Paris Agreement (COP21), the objective is for States to commit on concrete action plans for a limitation of global warming under 1,5°C by 2100. This takes place in the context of the recent publication of the alarming 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Humanity is now currently following a +2,7°C trajectory in the ''business as usual'' scenario.

For the first time in Climate Change conferences, space is going to be addressed as a specific topic. The European Space Agency, the UK Space Agency and the Scottish Space Leadership Council have been very active in the past year to put the specific challenge of space at the agenda of COP 26. In Glasgow, the Space and Geospatial Pavillion will feature events (physical and virtual) and high level discussion during the two weeks of the conference.

The multiple links between space activities and environment can be divided in 3 topics : (1) the crucial importance of Earth Observation to monitor climate change, (2) the carbon footprint of the space sector and (3) the pollution of outer space by space debris, which threatens the overall sustainability of orbital activities.


EARTH OBSERVATION AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Did you know that more than half of the major climate indicators used by the IPCC are based on space-based observations? Satellite imagery is an extremely valuable tool for understanding, preventing, predicting and adapting to what we can no longer avoid. The main challenges in this field is to process the immense amount of data satellite provides, to monitor C02 emissions, global temperature, deforestation, sea ice melting, oceanic acidification, biodiversity collapse, etc..

More generally, space is vital for sustainable development. In a 2018 report , the UN OOSA showed that space technologies are already essential to address all of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 40% of the 169 specific targets adopted by the UN in 2015.

SPACE SECTOR CARBON FOOTPRINT

Despite these benefits for climate change monitoring, space also happens to be a very polluting industry. The recent debates around the emergence of space tourism fueled by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have raised once again the issue of pollution caused by space launches. For a 10 minute glimpse at the Earth curvature, CO2 emissions produced by the tourists on a space flight will be between 100 and 1000 times more than the emissions generated by a commercial airplane flight.

However, over the past years, space agencies and industry majors have repeatedly highlighted their commitment to transitioning towards minimizing the space sector carbon footprint with the development of new propellants and smaller launchers.

SPACE DEBRIS AND LONG TERM SUSTAINABILITY

Finally, the most concerning topic regarding space is certainly the pollution of orbits by space debris. There are already about 1 000 000 debris over 1cm orbiting Earth that are threatening to collide with active satellites. Because space debris take a huge amount of time to slowly fall back to Earth and disintegrate in the atmosphere, their population is continuously growing since the beginning of human space activities. Orbits are filled with rocket bodies, inactive satellites, and various detached pieces. At orbital speeds (around 10km/s), even a small screw carries enough kinetic energy to disintegrate a whole satellite in case of collision.

Despite the efforts made by space agencies and satellite operators to comply with UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines (2015) in the design, operations, and decommissioning of satellites, the absence of a regulatory Space Traffic Management framework in Low Earth Orbit, combined with the boom in the number of satellites launches (due to the emergence of mega constellations for telecommunications and IoT), generates a very high level of collision risk and uncertainty for the future of space activities.


SHARE MY SPACE, ENABLING SPACE SAFETY AND SUSTAINABILITY

Share My Space vision and purpose lie in this growing concern about the safety and sustainability of space activities. Less than 3% of harmful debris are correctly tracked, and a catastrophic collision could happen anytime, causing an environmental disaster in outer space. The technologies we develop aim at reducing the risk of orbital collision by a factor of 50 through :
- A better knowledge of the debris situation : with our MTOS optical technology, we will build a 150 000 space debris catalogue (6 times the current knowledge of space debris).
- Safe navigation solutions : with CALM, we are working towards the automation of satellite navigation to avoid any collision between active satellites and known space debris.

Finally, with INDEMN, our space sustainability simulator, we help satellite operators to simulate and visualize the pollution of orbits and the growing risk of collisions over a satellite lifetime depending on the satellite mission design.


Learn more about COP26 and space :
The Space4Climate Initiative
UK Space Agency at COP 26
ESA and COP26