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In the third article in our Digital Future series, we explore the role of Big Data and the private sector in achieving meaningful Space Governance

The Digital Future: Big Data & Space Governance

On Earth, road, highway, and air travel operate under strict governance; insurance, ownership and accountability, responsible behaviour mandated and enforced by law. Governance is accepted because we all understand the potential destructive power of an automobile or aircraft, and the severe consequences of irresponsible or unsafe behaviour.

In Space, we are not operating under the same principles. In recent weeks we have been witness to satellites inexplicably blowing apart in Space, near misses between astronaut vehicles and Space debris, and aberrant rocket stages flying uncontrolled overhead which pose potential danger when falling back to Earth. There are hundreds of thousands of Resident Space Objects that orbit the Earth with an uncontrolled flight path.

The situation is not sustainable.

Meaningful Space Governance will stem the proliferation of such events. As the number of operational satellites rapidly climbs over the next decade the situation becomes more complex. The urgent issue is the speed at which governments from all Space faring nations can collectively implement adequate Space Governance measures to ensure the safety of Space flight, the sustainability of the Space environment, and the security of life on Earth.
The Kessler Syndrome, a scenario named after the NASA scientist who conceived of it, postulates a collision between Space objects which could create debris sufficient to trigger a cascading chain of collisions, one with the destructive power to destroy critical satellites and create a debris field rendering the near-Earth space environment unusable. Earth could lose vital services currently delivered from satellites, and possibly be unable to safely launch future space missions. When we speak of Space Governance, this is what is at stake.

Space services form an integral part of our daily lives, connecting and informing us, enabling safe navigation, cell phone services, multimedia broadcasts, and all on-line financial transactions. The global pandemic has only accelerated our voracious appetite for more services from Space. Big Data is the currency of the new space economy and as we become more reliant on it so does our need to preserve the critical environment of Space for future generations.

Sustainability in Space rests on the premise of a safe environment in which to operate. Currently, our innovation in managing traffic in Space has not kept pace with the innovations that are driving the proliferation of uses for Space. Technologies for sustainability must keep pace with the technological innovation that makes data from Space so powerful.

NorthStar is in the business of utilizing Big Data for sustainability. We are not alone, there is good work being done by private and public interests; The European Space Agency’s Green Technology Program is driving the reduction of energy consumption during the life cycle of space missions, using resources in a more sustainable way, and managing the residual waste and polluting substances resulting from space activities.

But overall, it is safe to say that in the New Space Economy, Big Data applications which deliver new services from Space are at a premium versus applications for Space Sustainability and Governance. This is to be expected. In the history of human progress, innovation in the delivery of new services always leaps ahead. But it does not mean we can’t even the equation.

There is another way.

Preventing a series of catastrophic collisions in Space relies on two essential elements, innovative technology and effective governance: Innovation from the commercial sector and the entrepreneurs who take the risks of delivering new products and services, and Global Space Governance driven by the cooperation of spacefaring nations of the world. Time is the enemy. Decisive action on the part of governments to accelerate innovation to protect this fragile environment is critical.

I encourage all governments of the world to adopt the means necessary to support the rapid deployment of emerging commercial technologies and services to preserve the Space environment. This can be achieved through governments acting as clients, procuring services offered by commercial enterprises, and should be an immediate priority.

In most countries of the world, matters of Space are matters of government, a legacy which owes to the origins of Space exploration. In 2021 this coexists with the reality of an emerging and thriving sector of commercial enterprise delivering innovations for safe and sustainable Space.

Its time to act together and change our flight plan towards a safe and sustainable future.

Stewart Bain, Co-founder and CEO, NorthStar Earth & Space