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The UN announces bold new framework for space sustainability

With concerns growing over space debris and satellite traffic, the UN and UK government has signed a one-of a-kind agreement to ensure the sustainability of space missions going forward.

If you keep up to date with our stories, you’ll know that space junk – though it may sound like a storage locker owned by eponymous hero Rick Sanchez – actually represents a very real issue.

As it stands today there are close to 6,000 satellites orbiting the Earth, 60% of which are either non-operational or completely outdated. Either way, these remnants of missions past are left spinning around our planet, emitting harmful materials and making modern space research dangerous and unpredictable.

Our solar system isn’t exactly about to get any respite in the next decade either. With tech tycoons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk looking to establish their own low-orbit internet constellations, an estimated 990 satellites are set to be launched every year throughout the 2020s.

It goes without saying that we probably need to establish some ground rules for sustainability sooner rather than later.

With that goal in mind, an exciting new partnership has just blossomed between the ‘UN Office for Outer Space Affairs’ (UNOOSA) and the UK government. Together, the two governing bodies have drawn together a framework for the ‘safe and sustainable use of space,’ which was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly.

While we’ve yet to see any specific details of the guidelines, the announcement revealed that education and outreach are chief on the agenda for both parties and that the UK Space Agency is heading up the funding.

Through a series of global workshops – which will be mandatory for all space faring nations to attend – this framework aims to raise awareness about the potential hazards of space debris, and will usher in a new international law built around sustainability and space-traffic management.

In the announcement, UNOOSA director Simonetta Di Pappo stated: ‘It is essential the international community comes together to make the long-term sustainability of space activities a reality. Our guidelines are a landmark expression of global consensus and effective multilateralism on this crucial subject.’

As we previously highlighted, global investment in space activity is at an all-time high and continues to rise. With an estimated 170 million pieces of debris currently floating around our atmosphere, tracking junk is no easy feat, let alone figuring out the logistics of actually clearing it.

What’s more, every time satellites are shot into orbit, the burning of their metal casing creates tiny alumina particles which are destined to linger in our atmosphere for decades. Scientists are even concerned that as we up the ante with launches, these particles may eventually alter our weather systems.

With the likes of SpaceX and Amazon chucking up hundreds at a time, you can see how that might become a problem.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The fact that we’re even talking about the management of space waste and bringing in bold new changes at all is a real positive. De-cluttering our atmosphere isn’t going to be a simple task, but make no mistake, the introduction of a global policy is massive news.

In the months ahead we’re sure to uncover what these guidelines actually entail. Until then, let’s continue to become more sustainable on ground level.


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