Sustainability in space
Satellites are starting to take up considerable space in The Earth’s orbit, with almost 5,000 of them circling our planet as of January 2022, 1,713 of which were only launched last year.
While launching a satellite used to be expensive, increased affordability has led to an increase in commercial ventures of all kinds in recent years – from Elon Musk’s Space X to Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which plans to deliver internet from space using 3,236 small satellites in low Earth orbit.
Some satellites can certainly help us with global warming: they’re able to give us a bird’s eye point of view of melting ice caps and predict the ever-increasing temperatures.
Communication satellites, meanwhile, can provide valuable benefits by helping transport planners reduce their carbon and providing communication release in places devastated by climate change-related natural disasters.
To celebrate World Space Week’s 2022 theme, ‘space and sustainability’, TechInformed spoke with Laurent Vieira de Mello, COO of Swiss satellite organisation Astrocast, and Matthew Knowles, a corporate spokesperson for London-based Inmarsat.
While satellites can help with global warming, they also come with their own sustainability issues. As satellites orbit, if one clashes into another, it can cause them to smash into thousands of pieces.
As a result, the debris enters its own orbit at tremendous speed and can crash into other satellites, causing even more rubbish in space and more obstacles for future satellite or rocket launches to dodge.
According to a recent Inmarsat’s survey, almost half of all respondents were concerned about potential issues in space – a valid concern given the fact that by 2030 there could be as many as 100,000 operational satellites in orbit.
Both Inmarsat and Astrocast claim that they plan to address this problem by making their satellites more durable, with a lifespan of 15 years.
Once the satellites are due to depart, they get put into a ‘graveyard orbit’, an orbit that lies further away from the orbits which active satellites are using.
Vieira de Mello said that his team works with the 18th Space Control Squadron (an organisation that tracks space objects) to receive alerts when satellites are close to colliding, to which “we can change the position of the satellite to avoid these collisions,” through an on-board “propulsions system”.
Matthew Knowles, corporate communications exec at Inmarsat explained that although most of its satellites are on the geostationary (GEO) orbit – which has significantly less debris than the low earth orbit (LEO) which many satellites are on – it claims that it is still working hard to collaborate with other GEO operators and international institutions to define standards and ensure that “best industry practices are adopted to protect the space environment”.
Like Astrocast, it does this by sharing data with other satellite operators on the positions of its satellites.
For its smaller fleet of 175 satellites that are due to become part of the LEO orbit, it will carry ‘Space Situational Beacons’ “to allow for active orbit tracking for collision avoidance”.
Down to earth
But with thousands of satellites due to launch into the atmosphere, what about the carbon emissions produced during launch?
Inmarsat claims that its launches are not as regular as other competitors, and that often, “launches use hydrogen and oxygen as fuel with only water as a waste product,” says Knowles.
Vieira de Mello admitted that Astrocast “doesn’t know yet” how it will offset the carbon produced during launch, because “we first need to assess the impact of launching”, but compensating the carbon is something it’s looking at.
Help from outer space
While satellites have still got some way to go to become sustainable, satcom firms are still keen to highlight how their products are helping sustainability on Earth
Vieira de Mello points out that “15% of the planet is covered by accessible IoT connection,” meaning that opportunities to track in remote areas such as rural areas or even the sea have been limited.
However, much more can be covered with the help of new affordable satellite IoT (SatIoT), according to satcom providers, with companies such as Astrocast able to help with projects such as tracking glaciers and the melting of permafrost.
“When permafrost unfreezes, it releases [greenhouse] gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere,” explains Vieira de Mello.
The COO adds that cold climate researchers at Cardiff School of Earth and Ocean Sciences are using Astrocast’s satellites to keep track of the rate permafrost and glaciers melting.
Vieira de Mello adds that Astrocast’s satellites help the environment by saving companies on carbon emissions produced through transportation by allowing remote services.
For example, in Senegal where about 20% of the population lacks access to clean water, Astrocast is helping Swiss charity, Access to Water Foundation, to deliver free access to drinking water to more than 80,000 people in Senegal by the end of this year.
With SatIoT, the foundation can monitor the water filtration systems remotely, rather than spending time and petrol driving to the 150 water points they aim to connect.
Inmarsat also addresses global warming by helping provide connectivity to support disaster relief – one example has involved connecting people in the Bahamas that were affected by Hurricane Dorian three years ago – establishing a satellite communication link for disaster response teams when local cellular and terrestrial networks went down.
The satcom provider is also supporting airplanes to reduce the amount of carbon emissions they pump out by using its technology to map out more efficient paths. According to Knowles, Inmarsat’s technology can pinpoint an aircraft “in four dimensions – latitude, longitude, altitude and time”.
“Pilots and air traffic controllers can calculate the shortest available routes, cruise at optimum altitudes and use continuous climb and descent paths, saving fuel and lessening aviation’s environmental impact,” Knowles explains.
Inmarsat has also worked with Eastern Pacific Shipping (EPS), a container ship, dry bulk, and tanker vessel operator, to help shorten its journeys and release less CO2.
With Inmarsat’s satellites and an AI software from AI firm Nautilus Labs, EPS managed to track a vessel making a journey from Scotland to Nigeria and onwards to Indonesia. With the more efficient route, “the Nautilus platform showed a 30.5 metric tonne fuel saving,” says Knowles.
“Remarkably, the technology helped that vessel avoid 95 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions,” he added. “Depending on where you live, that’s roughly like taking 21 cars off the street for an entire year.”
The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has developed standards for space vehicles, systems and operations globally to follow, such as safely deorbiting their satellites.
The European Cooperation for Space Standardisation (ECSS) has also asked satellite companies to be a part of its ‘Space Debris and Space Traffic Management Group’, to enforce better sustainability in space, both of which Inmarsat is part of.
Inmarsat has also set its own company goals to reduce its emissions by two-thirds by 2030.
To help achieve this, the satcom firm is looking to work with sustainability partner Carbon Intelligence to quantify emissions that come from sources related to the company’s peripheral activities.
Last November, Astrocast also signed with the Paris Peace Forum on the ‘Net Zero Space’ initiative, which means it has committed, alongside other satellite operators, launchers, space agencies and academics, to achieve sustainable use of outer space by 2030.
Astrocast has also followed European Space Agency (ESA) guidelines which ensure it safely de-orbits. The ESA guidelines state that operators should dispose of a satellite within 25 years, either through a graveyard orbit or by bringing it back to Earth to be destroyed in the atmosphere.
This may soon be subject to change however, following the news last month that the US government (via the Federal Communications Commission) has passed a new rule governing all US-related missions which requires satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within five years of completing their missions.
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