The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) is committed to developing an open access database of relevant high quality research on all matters pertaining to the interface between digital technologies and the environment. Each Thematic Working Group (TWG) undertakes a range of activities, one of which is to share brief bibliographies of recent important literature that may be of use to the community of researchers and practitioners wishing to explore specific themes. These not only address direct linkages with digital technology, but also provide scientific background on important emerging themes.
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Context: Satellites and Space
Recent years have seen growing concern about the environmental impact of the space industry, focusing especiallly on space debris and the impact of Low Earth Orbit satellite swarms on the dark sky. Much work has also been undertaken on ways through which satellites can be used positively to monitor environmental change on earth. However, there has as yet been no comprehensive attempt to create a holistic model that incorporates both the positive and the negative environmental impacts of the “space industry”. This is the task that DESC’s Satellites and Space TWG has set itself. Key areas in which we are interested include (but are not limited to):
- The environmental impact of the construction of satellites and launch vehicles (including the minerals and other materials used as well as the energy required for production);
- The impact of launch vehicles, especially on the biosphere and atmosphere;
- Consideration of space debris as an environmental impact;
- The use of satellites for weather forecasting and remotely sensing environmental impacts on planet earth;
- The economic value of satellites for telecommunication purposes;
- The costs of competition between companies for space when considered as a “free” natural resource;
- The implications of the visual impacts of satellites on the dark sky, both for astronomers and for those whose cultural beliefs about the pristine sky are being harmed;
- The environmental impact of mining objects (such as planets and asteroids) in space; and
- Legal frameworks and policies for managing and administering space.
Using DESC’s analytical framework, our Satellites and Space TWG will bring together these and other emerging related research issues to explore both the positive benefits and negative harms of satellites and the space industry on the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere. Ultitimately, working alongside international organisations, academics, industry bodies, civil socety and governments we will develop a new holistic framework for understanding environmental impact in “Space” that can help underpin appropriate international policy making.
All DESC Thematic Working Groups provide a short introduction to some of the most important literature in their field to serve as a guide so that those unfamiliar with the theme can gain an understanding of the issues. The literature listed below provides a starting point for such an enquiry.
- Boley, A.C. and Byers, M. (2021) Satellite mega-constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on Earth, Nature Scientific Reports 11, 10642m https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89909-7.
- Cross, M.K.D. (2021) Outer space and the idea of the global commons, International Relations, 35(3), 384-402 https://doi.org/10.1177/00471178211036223 .
- Diserens, S., Lewis, H. and Fliege, J. (2020) IAC-19-A6.2.6: NewSpace and its implications for space debris models, Journal of Space Safety Engineering, 7 (4), 1-8 doi:10.1016/j.jsse.2020.07.027.
- Lawrence, A., Rawls, M.L., Jah, M. et al. (2022) The case for space environmentalism, Nature Astronomy 6, 428–435, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01655-6.
- Maloney, C.M., Portmannm, R.W., Ross, M.N. and Rosenlof, K.H. (2022) The Climate and Ozone Impacts of Black Carbon Emissions From Global Rocket Launches, JGRJournal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 127, e2021JD036373. https://doi.org/10.1029/2021JD036373.
- Sokol, J. (2021) The fault in our stars: satellite swarms are threatening the night sky. Is low-earth orbit the next crucible of environmental conflict?, Science, 374, 6564, 142-147, https://www.science.org/doi/epdf/10.1126/science.acx9260.
- USA FAA (2022) FAA – SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project at the Boca Chica Launch Site June 13 2022, https://www.faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship.
- Venkatesan, A., Lowenthal, J., Prem, P. and Vidaurri, M. (2020) The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons, Nature Astronomy, 4, 1043-1048, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-01238-3 .
- Witze, A., (2022) ‘Unsustainable’: how satellite swarms pose a rising threat to astronomy: SpaceX and other companies are still struggling to make their satellites darker in the night sky, Nature News, 26 May 2022 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01420-9.
Private Sector companies and Space
Since 2020, several companies have reacted to the growing global concern about space and sustainability, and have produced useful reports about their approaches to these issues. These include:
Members of the Working Group
Chair: Tim Unwin
Members of the Working Group
- Andy Lawrence
- Luc St. Pierre
Members of our “Expert” group
- Mai’a K. Davis Cross
We are also delighted that the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is participoating in this Working Group in its DESC Observer Status capacity.
Updates 25th July 2022