New project continues EPFL's commitment to space sustainability

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

IRGC is happy to contribute to a project about understanding and enhancing space sustainability. The project, coordinated by eSpace, will provide evidence-based insights to policymaking and link with the Space Sustainability Rating system.

More than one million objects larger than 1cm are orbiting the Earth, posing significant challenges to current and future operations in the space environment, and potentially impacting people on Earth through loss or disruption of space-based infrastructures or activities due to a collision. EPFL has been actively addressing the risk of collisions with space debris through various research projects and activities conducted at eSpace and the International Risk Governance Center (IRGC).

As part of this expanding work, a new project, 'Space sustainability: Policy options and interrelations with Earth system governance' was initiated last month. This project is part of eSpace's newly-launched Sustainable Space Hub and is led by Senior Researcher Dr Xiao-Shan Yap, who pioneers the research topic of earth-space sustainability. IRGC's contribution to the project draws upon its work since 2021, which has been centered around the governance of space debris risks and assessing policy options to ensure the safe and sustainable use of space, and elaborates on its projects on space debris risk governance and ensuring the sustainability of emerging technologies.

"Concerns about space sustainability are on the rise, next to space safety and managing risk in space operations. So many services on earth depend on critical services from space that ensuring the sustainability of the space environment becomes crucial" says Marie-Valentine Florin, IRGC's executive director.

The new project will draw on qualitative and semi-quantitative analysis of primary and secondary data, as well as co-construction of problems and policy options with stakeholders. It aims to broaden the framing of space sustainability by explicitly considering its interconnectedness with Earth-bound challenges and provide evidence-based insights for policymaking. The project will engage actively with the Space Sustainability Rating, OECD Space Forum and the International Telecommunication Union, among others.

"We are living in an era in which ensuring earth-space sustainability will be a rising challenge. Mismanagement of increasing space activities not only threatens the long-term functions of space-based infrastructures for daily activities on Earth, it causes environmental consequences to the Earth system, undermines ongoing sustainability transitions, and exacerbates global inequality”, Dr. Yap. "This project will scientifically explore the broader framing of earth-space sustainability, aiming at deriving early evidence-based insights to inform policymaking. The EPFL Space Center provides the excellent conditions to implement this project and create synergies, given its high-profile international networks and strong expertise in pushing the frontier of the space sustainability debate".

This project is funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), and is part of the larger SERI-funded Research Initiative on Sustainable Space Logistics (RISSL), which began in May 2019. The research will include understanding the consequences resulting from space activities in the following dimensions to derive early policy recommendations:

  1. Environmental implications on the Earth system, in which Yap will work with scientists co-leading the Sustainable Space Hub to derive policy implications based on life-cycle assessment (LCA);
  2. Orbital sustainability, in which Yap will engage with the OECD Space Forum and work with the Space Sustainability Rating team to analyse incentive-based policy options for long-term sustainability of satellite infrastructures; and
  3. Socio-economic development, which focuses on exploring inequality and other socio-economic risks stemming from space activities.

Xiao-Shan Yap is an interdisciplinary social scientist working at the intersection of sustainability transitions, development economics, global commons and earth system governance - whose expertise will be instrumental to account for the rising challenge of earth-space sustainability. Yap will also leverage the governance expertise of IRGC in public policy advice on the governance of collision risk from space debris and other risks from space activities.

This project is a step forward in line with the longer-term vision of eSpace and IRGC to address sustainability problems of space activities in a more comprehensive manner.

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