Space activity is growing very rapidly, and many more countries and companies want to be part of it. But there is even more potential. New technologies have made space more accessible– and this has led to new uses for space and ways it can help solve big global problems. Countries and industries have worked together in some areas, but the fast growth could cause problems as the international cooperation and rules may not keep up. Global politics are complicated too. If we want space to help as much as possible, countries will need to think about how to keep it a place where everyone works together.
Current State of Space
The space industry is experiencing unprecedented growth since Sputnik, with billions in private investment fuelling new startups in rocketry and satellites. SpaceX has significantly reduced launch costs to low Earth orbit through reusable rockets, lowering prices to $1,200 per pound of payload. This has enabled more satellite constellations like OneWeb’s planned fleet of 650 satellites and SpaceX’s Starlink network of over 2,000 satellites launched so far. Amazon plans to spend $10 billion on their Project Kuiper constellation of 3,200 satellites.
The increase in satellites is a concern as space debris grows, including defunct satellites and rocket stages. This debris could trigger a chain reaction of collisions called the Kessler Syndrome, eventually making some orbits difficult to use. Launches also raise sustainability issues through greenhouse gas emissions– though effects on the atmosphere are still unknown.
However, more satellites also enable cheaper environmental and human rights monitoring. Commercial imagery has revealed war crimes in Ukraine. Tensions grew from a near collision between Starlink satellites and China’s space station, highlighting the need for better communication as outer space resource extraction begins.
Key Developments and Challenges
- Major space companies have pledged to advance diversity by annually reporting workforce diversity data and partnering with universities to increase underrepresented groups in technical fields.
- The UN banned mercury as a satellite propellant by 2025 due to human health risks from mercury reentering the atmosphere. A whistleblower had revealed a mercury thruster was being developed in 2018. The ban occurred before any reached orbit.
- Astroscale received ESA funding for a 2024 demo mission to remove a OneWeb satellite from orbit, testing debris removal. They plan to launch a commercial de-orbit service for satellite operators.
Ensuring a Sustainable Future
- By the aerospace companies:
- Durable designs
- Coordinated Operation
- Sustainable Disposal
- Continuous Assessment
- By the international agencies:
- Space surveillance and tracking
- Regulation and standards
- International cooperation