Sustainable Space?

A recently published roadmap aims to ensure that the Scottish Space Sector works sustainably. But is the plan everything it’s cracked up to be?

A roadmap has been published that lays out plans for the space sector in Scotland to pivot to a more sustainable strategy in the coming years. Among their 10 key findings are about 7 which even a toddler could come up with, given 10 minutes and the promise of a biscuit for a job well done. Perhaps most important amongst these is the second finding which states that “Improving the sustainability of the space sector in orbit requires a complicated, interrelated set of technical, economic, and political challenges to be addressed”. No shit, Sherlock.

The more serious and useful findings note the difficulty of detailing policy in the sector for Scottish businesses given that there are almost no overarching rules or binding legislation governing conduct or sustainability either down here on the surface or up in space.

The roadmap suggests a carrot and stick approach to keeping the sector in line as it develops, suggesting a combination of financial incentives and deterrents.

Though, to its credit, the roadmap does warn against greenwashing of the industry as we’ve seen in so many other sectors recently, particularly with the advent of the ‘carbon credit’. Perhaps the most confusing goal in the entire roadmap is the ambition to meet the Scottish net zero target of 2045.

The roadmap talks a lot about reducing space debris and developing greener propellants. Emphasis on ‘greenER’ not necessarily green. Explosions aren’t typically very environmentally friendly.

It intends to achieve the latter by phasing out ‘hydrazine’ (N¬2H4, an inorganic, incredibly flammable compound used as a propellant in spacecraft as its stability means it is suitable for long term storage) and replacing it with something else. Hydrazine has a long history of use as a propellant: from NASA’s DAWN mission to the American F-16 fighter jet to Nazi fighter planes such as the Messerschmidt, because of course it was. The American EPA has classified it as a possible human carcinogen, and you really don’t want to breath the stuff in but there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of information about the environmental impacts of using it as a fuel source other than ‘rocket fuel bad’ which even our toddler from earlier could have told you.

The wider problem here is that even the term ‘greener propellants’ is a bit of a misnomer. Almost all chemical propellants used in this method will release a combination of soot, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, sulphates etc. from the exhaust alone. Typically, this term instead refers to the handling and storage of these materials on the ground rather than what happens when you blow them up.

Possibly the only tangible, sensible goal outlined in the roadmap is the focus on ensuring all satellites have a re-entry package that will kick in either at the end of its mission or by a maximum limit of 1 year after the end of its mission which will take it out of orbit and back down to earth. This would prevent further debris from joining the already vast rings of rubbish around the planet.

It is estimated that there are currently 129,000,000 individual objects in orbit around the earth. These range in size from less than a centimetre to larger than 10cm and are beginning to represent a serious hazard.

However, it is not mentioned whether the objective would to be to recover these satellites, many of which will be the microsatellites that the Scottish space industry has shown a penchant for in its short history, or simply to allow them to burn up on re-entry, another action which we can expect to have environmental consequences, potentially altering the air we breath and which is known to be damaging to the ozone layer – and we really don’t want to do that again.

Overall, the entire thing is just a bit of a let-down. While it is very important that these discussions are had and that we legislate for this sector and set out a series of best practices before it develops into an unstoppable monstrosity intent on burning up every resource we have, details are few and far between. The gist seems to be mainly that someone should invest in these areas and just sort of hope that everyone behaves. When has that ever gone wrong in the past?

Illustration: ‘Space‘ by Zoë Brown

By Adam Losekoot

Senior Opinion Editor, 'The Opinionator', sexy bastard and all round stand up guy