Do you use a smartphone to communicate with friends and family, check the weather, or provide directions while driving? Do you stream new episodes of your favorite television show every week? Do you use your bank card to withdraw cash from ATMs, or make everyday purchases?
All of these conveniences we rely on daily are only possible by reason of satellites orbiting Earth. Satellites are used to send signals down from space for nearly every function of our digitized lifestyle, and rapidly accumulating space debris caught in Earth’s orbit poses a massive threat to them.
This topic was discussed at length in Rubicon’s recent State of Space webinar. We will touch on some of the main takeaways from this webinar, but for anyone looking to watch the event in its entirety, it can be found on Rubicon’s YouTube channel or below:
Dan Sampson, Rubicon’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, hosted the event. He was joined by special guest Charity Weeden, Vice President of Global Space Policy and Government Affairs at Astroscale U.S. Charity is also chair of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, along with 23 years served in the Royal Canadian Airforce.
Charity’s remarks were both fascinating and eye opening. She touched on the exponentially growing aerospace industry, the pressing issue of space debris and why we should all care about it, and how she successfully persuades the world’s top policy and decision makers to take action.
The Growing Aerospace Industry
According to The Space Report, the space economy currently sits just under $500 billion. That is around 55 percent higher than one decade ago, and Charity believes it will grow to over $3 trillion by 2040. She noted this is no longer an industry for astronauts and engineers alone. There is an increasing need for a broad range of talented professionals from all industries.
Astroscale itself is experiencing rapid growth since its inception in 2013. They currently have divisions in Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Israel. As a whole, Astroscale has more than 300 team members worldwide, raised over $300 million in investment, and achieved multiple awards for its contributions to the removal of space debris.
Risks of Space Debris
Over the last six decades, there have been more than 10,000 launches into space, each producing space debris of various sizes. Eventually, it makes its way into orbit in what Charity describes as a “highway of debris,” traveling at speeds of over 17,000 miles per hour. At speeds this high, a piece of debris smaller than 10 centimeters can cause catastrophic damage to satellites or space crafts used in human space expeditions. Pieces of debris this small are unable to be tracked. Currently in Earth’s orbit, there are an estimated one million pieces of debris between one and 10 centimeters, and over 130 million pieces smaller than one centimeter.
In the last two years alone, we have doubled the amount of operational satellites in orbit, and there are plans to launch many more in the next few years. With our daily lives relying so heavily on the functionality of these satellites, Charity urged that the time for action is now. She expressed there is a pressing need for creative solutions to this issue, and there is no idea too far fetched to try. They will evaluate and demonstrate every technology presented to confirm if it is a viable option. So far, Charity reports they have tested solutions such as large nets, harpoons for larger pieces, and lasers here on Earth that are just strong enough to disrupt the course of small pieces of debris.
Persuading Policy and Decision Makers
An issue of this magnitude goes far beyond a need for change at a local level. If we are going to solve this problem, action is needed from top policy and decision makers on a global scale. In fact, a large portion of Charity’s job is meeting with these individuals and persuading them to take preventative measures.
There are a number of challenges Charity faces in her efforts, such as the need for hard data and the overall lack of focus on the subject, although she has noticed an improvement in the latter in recent years. To overcome this, Charity takes every opportunity she can to educate others on the subject. She inspires action by pointing out that there are consequences to doing nothing. Furthermore, there is an existing economic pressure that motivates industry leaders, and society’s increasing interest in companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices works in her favor as well.
Left unaddressed, this issue will compound itself in the years to come. Project Clear Constellation™ by Rubicon® is a program specifically designed to combat the problem. The heart of this program is the Clear Constellation competition, which invites universities from across the United States to submit design concepts for solutions to clean up space debris and awards the winner a cash prize of $100,000.
Overall, the webinar was highly successful. Rubicon extends a sincere thank you to its guest, Charity Weeden for sharing her extensive knowledge on the subject. We would also like to thank every attendee who joined the event, and Dan Sampson for moderating.