Satellites and Space Thematic Working Group

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.

Key literature

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.

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