Gulf can play a key role in cleaning up space

Gulf can play a key role in cleaning up space

Addressing the space debris problem requires a multipronged approach, combining governmental and private sector initiatives -AFP
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Earlier this month, the satellite television company DISH was fined $150,000 by the US Federal Communications Commission for not relocating a retired satellite sufficiently from its initial orbit. This was the first time the US government had penalized a business for a space debris-related offense. Consider it a fine for littering, but in space.

Space debris is defined as human-made items that are no longer useful but remain in space and frequently orbit the Earth. As the number of satellites in orbit continues to skyrocket, driven by the commercialization of space activities, this issue is now reaching a critical point, with a dire need for international cooperation to ensure the sustainability of our in-orbit activities.

The problem is clear: Our space enterprises have left Earth’s orbit littered with defunct satellites, spent rocket stages and even minuscule paint chips. The relentless increase in the number of objects in orbit poses a significant threat to both active satellites and human space missions. Collisions with space debris, even tiny flecks, can have catastrophic consequences, potentially endangering astronauts and critical space assets. Currently, there are believed to be more than 30,000 pieces of space junk larger than a tennis ball floating in space — a number that has been steadily rising. In short, space debris is a major hazard for the $400 billion space economy. To ensure space sustainability, we must act swiftly.

Addressing the space debris problem requires a multipronged approach, blending governmental and private sector initiatives. It is a mission in which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council can play an important role. The GCC’s growing interest in space, coupled with its increasing investments in space activities, positions it as a key player in the pursuit of space sustainability.

Space enterprises have left Earth’s orbit littered with defunct satellites, spent rocket stages and even minuscule paint chips

Khaled Abou Zahr

By actively engaging with international organizations, promoting best practices in space traffic management and supporting the research and development of space debris mitigation technologies, Saudi Arabia and the GCC can significantly contribute to safeguarding the space environment for future generations. It is a challenge that requires international cooperation and, by taking a leading role, the Kingdom can make a significant impact on the future of space exploration. Yet, practically, what are the concrete steps to follow?

First, in order to manage space traffic effectively, we need to enhance our ability to track objects and debris in orbit. Improving observation technology and data sharing among satellite operators can make space activities safer and more efficient. With better tracking, operators can respond more effectively to potential collisions, reducing the risk to spacecraft and astronauts.

Moreover, as the number of active satellites increases, best practices for avoiding collisions must be established. The current system relies heavily on manual monitoring, which may become insufficient as space traffic grows. Using better technology through artificial intelligence and automation will support a better environment. Experts also state that agreed-upon “rights of way” for satellites could help mitigate collision risks. Just like on the roads with cars or in the air with planes, there also needs to be a “circulation code” in space to empower the highway to the moon, for example.

Another important point is not to add junk to the pile. Therefore, to maintain a safe and clean space environment, we must reduce the growth in space debris. This can be achieved through a combination of regulation and voluntary actions. Regulatory measures might include requiring enhanced disposal and de-orbit plans as part of satellite licensing. Encouraging voluntary actions like the preemptive de-orbiting of failing satellites and the active removal of inactive satellites could also help mitigate the problem.

By engaging with private companies and entrepreneurs, we can tap into their ingenuity to effectively tackle the problem

Khaled Abou Zahr

Empowering initiatives such as the Space Sustainability Rating is a good way forward. Hosted by eSpace at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne’s Space Center, it seeks to foster voluntary and bold action by satellite operators to reduce the risk of space debris, in-orbit collisions and unsustainable space operations. It gives space actors an opportunity to demonstrate through this rating their commitment to sustainability.

Finally, just like there are waste removal trucks on Earth, the same should and will happen in space. One of the most challenging aspects of space debris management is actively de-orbiting defunct satellites and fragments. Various methods, such as harpoons, magnets, lasers and slingshots, are under consideration. However, these approaches come with logistical and financial challenges.

One important question remains for this task: who will pay the costs of cleaning up space? This predicament is comparable to the plastic pollution problem in our oceans, where the need for urgent action is clear yet money for extensive cleanup projects is difficult to come by. Insurance and other schemes have been mentioned lately.

We should also state that companies and entrepreneurs play a pivotal role in addressing the challenge of space debris. Their innovation, resources and expertise are essential in developing cutting-edge solutions. These entities can invest in the research and development of advanced technologies. Moreover, private sector initiatives can encourage responsible space practices, which would contribute to the overall sustainability of space activities. By actively engaging with private companies and entrepreneurs, we can tap into their ingenuity to effectively tackle the problem while establishing a collaborative environment for responsible space activities.

Saudi Arabia and the GCC are in a good position to take a leading role and develop this collaboration with all stakeholders, from global institutions to companies, with the goal of establishing a safer and more sustainable space environment. This will pave the way for the development of a thriving space economy, which is projected to reach $1 trillion by 2040.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of SpaceQuest Ventures, a space-focused investment platform. He is CEO of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi. 
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view