As we rocket into the 21st century, the evolution of mobile and satellite technologies is set to revolutionize the way we connect. But in the race to leverage the opportunities of outer space, it’s important that we pause and contemplate the environmental ramifications of our activities.
Each launch of a space craft—whether a massive shuttle or a smaller satellite—inevitably contributes to the growing body of space debris orbiting the Earth at breakneck speeds. With tens of thousands of launches planned to create mega constellations over the next decade by major enterprises like Starlink and OneWeb, long-term concerns are mounting about space debris and its environmental impact.
In response, OneWeb has begun implementing proactive sustainability and responsible space practices.
The Problem With Space Debris
Although there may have only been approximately 6,300 successful rocket launches in the span of human history, those launches have left millions of pieces of human-made debris in their wake, now orbiting earth. These objects could be as large as an inoperative satellite that remains in orbit after the conclusion of its mission, or be as small as a fleck of paint that fell off the rocket.
In null-gravity, any object—no matter the size—could be dangerous. According to NASA:
“There are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches, or 1 centimeter) or larger, and approximately 100 million pieces of debris about .04 inches (or one millimeter) and larger. There is even more smaller micrometer-sized (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris.”
This space debris poses a logistical and ecological challenge, especially over the next century as advancing technology will continue to send more spacecraft into orbit.
At the moment, it doesn’t pose a massive risk to exploration efforts. But it very well could in the future. Potential threats include:
- Increased collision risk for launched objects
- Damage to satellites or space stations currently in orbit
- Limited launch windows
- Health and safety of humans operating in space
- Larger debris falling out of orbit and re-entering the atmosphere
Left unchecked, the increasing debris could lead to what’s known as the Kessler Syndrome—a nightmarish scenario where the density of objects in Low Earth Orbit is so concentrated that collisions become inevitable, triggering a cascade effect wherein each collision generates further debris. This in turn would only increase the likelihood of more collisions and making space travel and satellite operations potentially unfeasible for countless generations.
Understanding Responsible Space Practices
In the face of an imminent and escalating threat with each new launch, OneWeb has pioneered a novel concept: “Responsible Space,” which they define as: “practices that drive sustainability within the space industry, avoiding harming our low earth orbit environment while developing this new frontier in mobility, communications and connectivity.”
Responsible Space is about ensuring that the actions of today don’t jeopardize the future of space exploration and utilization. This echoes a common camping and backpacking refrain “leave no trace.” Boiled down, it means minimizing and preventing, wherever possible, any new debris as a result of a space mission.
In a recent report, OneWeb outlined five principles of responsible space, including:
- Reliability – Satellites should undergo thorough ground qualification programs, particularly when developing large systems or deploying constellations.
- Control – Operators should be accountable for identifying their assets, knowing their locations and controlling their trajectories.
- Coordination – Operators should share orbit information and maneuvering plans with other operators and coordinate to avoid collisions.
- Disposal – Upon decommissioning, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operators should promptly, reliably and safely deorbit their hardware.
- Safety-by-Design – Orbits and constellations should be designed to minimize the number of satellites in orbit.
By design, all of these are tied into broader concepts of earth-bound Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Role of OneWeb in Responsible Space Practices
Rather than waiting for disaster to strike, OneWeb is taking proactive action, serving on the vanguard of responsible space practices and operations. They’re making commitments to employing responsible design and operational practices, developing the space ecosystem and supporting policy outcomes via collaboration with other space-going enterprises.
Currently, these objectives manifest in four areas of their operations:
- Use of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation – These satellites are closer to the earth than legacy satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Proximity to earth reduces long-term debris risks and allows satellites to naturally deorbit after end-of-life, thereby reducing additional debris accumulation.
- Collaborative initiatives with other stakeholders – OneWeb has spearheaded several initiatives with other stakeholders, promoting dialogue and buy-in between key organizations. OneWeb is one of the primary signatories of the Space Industry Debris Statement, among other sustainability pledges.
- Recycling and end-of-life management strategies – OneWeb is also championing a novel initiative known as ADR (assisted disposal and removal), designed to remove space debris caused by their operations.
- SSA and STM – Space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) constitute a comprehensive approach to maintaining a safe, sustainable space environment amid the growing number of orbiting objects. SSA is the practice of tracking and predicting the movement of objects in space to prevent collisions, while STM involves creating and enforcing protocols for safe and efficient spacecraft operations.
Benefits of Responsible Space Practices for The Mobile/Satellite Connectivity Industry
Investing in responsible space practices is not just good for the environment and humanity’s long-term hopes to explore beyond the confines of this planet—it’s essential for continued operations.
Enhanced sustainability can drive the long-term viability and growth of the industry. By minimizing potential sources of debris and pollution, businesses can ensure a safe and accessible space environment, vital for the survival of the industry.
Furthermore, adopting responsible space practices can boost a company’s public image. As consumers grow more conscious of environmental concerns, companies demonstrating sustainable practices are viewed more favorably, which can help bolster a brand’s reputation.
OneWeb and The Future of Space Sustainability
OneWeb has boldly gone where no one has gone before—not just providing high-speed, low-latency connectivity across the globe, but also championing the cause of space sustainability.
Naturally, here at IP Access International, we share in this philosophy. We don’t just want to connect the world, but we aim to do so responsibly. And our SuperGIG technology is an extension of that philosophy. Providing connectivity you can rely on, we utilize satellite coverage from pioneers like OneWeb alongside terrestrial LTE networks to ensure unmatched performance and service standards.
Join us in building a responsible future, and stay connected while you do—with IP Access.