Is a space-related objective missing from the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015?
This question was put to a high-level panel at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – the first such event at WMO headquarters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than reopening the debate on SDGs, we must look ahead to 2030 and reflect on how to modify the existing goals, said Francois Rivasseau, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations in Geneva.
Countries must agree on how to protect space while encouraging technological progress, said Xavier Pasco, Director of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).
“Space forms part of our daily lives,” he added. “We need to think together how to guarantee its use for the common good – through renewed international governance.”
The value of satellite data
Several SDGs relate to climate. The growing diversity of Earth observation (EO) satellites boosts the world’s capacity for weather and climate monitoring, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Talaas.
“Satellite data has enabled us to increase the quality of weather forecasts everywhere, especially in the southern hemisphere,” he said, adding that more developing nations would soon join the global EO community.
The number of countries operating at least one satellite in orbit has climbed from 50 a decade ago to 87 today, noted Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Still, over 100 UN member states are missing out on the “transformative power of space assets.”
The space economy is growing at a rapid clip, she added, with advanced economies generating up to 10 per cent of gross domestic product thanks to space-related assets.
The radiofrequencies used for Earth observation must be safeguarded, Talaas emphasized WMO’s position on spectrum management will be presented at the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) hosted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Keeping orbits clean
To be sustainable, space use must be underpinned by shared guidelines, common rules, and best practices, agreed the panellists at the WMO meeting. They expressed worry at the crowding of the orbits above our heads.
“We want space to be accessible to human activity, but we don’t want a Wild West,” Stephane Israel, CEO of Arianespace said, noting the marked increase in satellite deployments lately.
European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Josef Aschbacher also noted the uptick in large constellation deployments.
Increased activity boosts the risk of collisions and can generate debris, which pollutes the space environment. Nevertheless, ESA has risen to the challenge. “By 2030 we aim to take out more objects than we put into orbit,” Aschbacher said.
The agency has commissioned the first-ever in-orbit debris removal mission, planned for launch in 2035 through a partnership between ESA and a start-up consortium for in-orbit servicing and debris removal.
Technologies are also needed for automated collision avoidance and improved coordination on space safety, Aschbacher added.
Bridging the space divide
Rivasseau encouraged participants to think of space as a connector that ties all 17 SDGs together. “We must prepare and protect space for the common good and to ensure a level playing field,” he said.
UNOOSA operates the secretariat for the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
COPUOS two years ago adopted Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, which include advice on how to mitigate space debris, share information on space objects, and ensure the equitable, rational and efficient use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the various orbital regions used by satellites.
Committee membership is on good track to reach 100 members in 2021, Di Pippo said when confirming that she received the 99th application during the panel.
India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, H.E. Mani Panday, reiterated the importance of international cooperation and participation for effective space governance.
Whether or not space sustainability is ever adopted as an 18th SDG, countries must collaborate “so we can bridge the space divide,” he said.
“ITU has made it possible for countries or groups of countries to have equitable access to orbits and frequencies since the beginning of the space age,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.
“I am confident that, together, states and space stakeholders, industry and academia will ensure that the global community takes full advantage of space applications to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”