NASANews and UpdatesPolicy

NASA Lays Out LEO Sustainability Vision

The earth, as seen from the International Space Station, showcasing wide swaths of the planet.
Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti, Expedition 42/ESA

Space is an environment that is increasingly intersectional, bringing together issues from across the globe to generate an immense economic and technological powerhouse. It has also cemented itself as a key element in modern global infrastructure, touching every element of contemporary life. To address a rapidly changing space operating environment and ensure its preservation for generations to come, NASA released Volume I of its integrated Space Sustainability Strategy on Tuesday, April 9th at Space Symposium, advancing the agency’s role as a global leader on this crucial issue. This first element, with a focus on Low Earth Orbit activities, will act as a key governing document for US based industry and government operations close to home – a key step in ensuring sustainability best practices as more players enter the fold. 

NASA defines space sustainability as the ability to maintain the conduct of space activities indefinitely into the future in a manner that is safe, peaceful, and responsible to meet the needs of the present generations while preserving the outer space environment for future activities and limiting harm to terrestrial life. In recent years, events such as collisions and anti-satellite weapons tests have made the LEO region crowded, with essential uncrewed and crewed platforms acutely at risk. In November 2021, this risk was highlighted when the crew of the International Space Station was forced to shelter in place by an ASAT test conducted by the Russian Federation. Other events, such as the breakup of upper stages and aging satellites in a variety of orbital regimes, as well as collisions, present considerable risk to long term visions of sustainable space exploration and utilization. It has become increasingly clear to both industry and government observers that new concrete frameworks are desperately needed, as pointed out by Vice President Kamala Harris during the most recent meeting of the National Space Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A visualization of the debris cloud produced by the 2021 Russian ASAT test, which threatened the lives of those aboard both the ISS and Chinese Space Station.

As an institution, NASA not only directs exploration and science objectives, but can help set standards in its role as a shepherd agency for the broader American aerospace industry. NASA’s precursor, NACA, set the standard for manufacturing and designing aircraft wings, designs that are still in use to this day. The purpose of this new strategy is to enable greater focus on advancements the agency can make that address the mounting space sustainability challenges posed by the rapidly changing space environment and that are aligned with NASA’s mission as a science and technology organization. In doing so, NASA can set standards on a national scale, before setting their sights on a more global outlook. According to Volume I of the Space Sustainability Strategy document, the agency will increase its role as a global leader in space sustainability by fulfilling the following key responsibilities: 

  • Provide science and technology leadership in the United States and the global space community on space sustainability topics. 
  • Support equitable access to and use of space now and in the future. 
  • Ensure that NASA’s missions and operations—including those it undertakes with non-NASA entities—maintain or enhance space sustainability.

This form of policy action comes in an age where several new players are eager to forge their own path, operating with little regard to global policy and practice. Through this framework, NASA can remain at the forefront of discussions about sustainability and governance in the near future. It is worth noting here that this approach does not leverage a technology based solution, rather one that aims to understand and characterize the problem before beginning to dismantle the systems at play. This is unique to many aspects of NASA’s mission, which has previously been a “tech forward” system for problem solving.  

For decades, NASA has served as a leader for responsible and sustainable space operations, but has lacked a single unified responsive framework by which to tackle the ever present problem of sustainability. Entities across the agency develop best practices, analytic tools, and technologies widely adopted by operators around the world. The new strategy seeks to integrate those efforts through a whole-of-agency approach – allowing NASA to focus its resources on the most pressing issues. Volume I of the Space Sustainability Strategy highlights six goals for facilitating conversations and instituting policy surrounding LEO sustainability:

  1. Develop a framework for assessing space sustainability within NASA.
  2. Prioritize the most efficient ways to minimize uncertainties about orbital debris and operations in the space environment.
  3. Lower barriers to space sustainability through developing and transferring technology.
  4. Update, modernize or develop policies that provide incentives to support space sustainability.
  5. Continue and improve coordination and collaboration outside of NASA.
  6. Improve NASA’s internal organization to support space sustainability.

Many of these goals play off a variety of elements within the agency that exist independently of this initiative, such as NASA’s position as an international collaborator and industry standards role model. To facilitate the integration required to enact these goals, NASA will appoint a new Director of Space Sustainability to coordinate activities across the agency. It is through this lens that NASA hopes to expand the conversation of sustainable practices, and hopes to act as a leader among allies in exploration. Space sustainability is a global issue that requires a coordinated, multilateral response – one that cannot be solved through a single discipline. The U.S. government is in the early stages of coordinating unified policies and guidance that support space sustainability, and while there are no concrete plans to tackle the issue as a whole, a thorough and systematic breakdown of the issues will potentially help to inform future remediation efforts. Volume I of this framework hopes to address gaps that remain in existing frameworks, and chart a clear course for the future. 

Switzerland signs the Artemis Accords on April 15, 2024 – becoming the 37th signatory in a growing coalition of nations acting in accordance with NASA policy.
Credit: Nik Alexander

NASA’s approach to space sustainability recognizes four operational domains: Earth, Earth orbit, the orbital area near and around the Moon known as cislunar space, and deep space, including other celestial bodies. The first volume of the strategy focuses on sustainability in Earth orbit. NASA plans to produce additional volumes focusing on the other domains. Throughout recent years, peers and competitors across the globe have set their sights on not just LEO, but to the Moon and beyond. NASA, in many ways, led the charge with their State Department collaborative Artemis Accords, a series of agreements for peaceful and equitable exploration of the moon. In this vein, NASA has taken on a new role as a broker for international standards, extending well beyond LEO and engaging in meaningful soft power. Through this, the Artemis coalition of nations may aim to set an operational standard for how both crewed and uncrewed missions to the lunar surface are conducted, as well as destinations beyond. 

Throughout turbulent periods, NASA has flexed its muscles as a soft power organization – leveraging both technical expertise and policy frameworks to help accomplish national goals and cement US leadership. From Apollo-Soyuz to the International Space Station and now on to Artemis, the agency has proven that it can represent the interests of the United States on a global stage. Now, with their sights set on Earth – the agency is looking to flex its muscles once more, ensuring a long term sustainable vision for LEO operations. It is through this lens that NASA hopes to develop solutions and implement policy and eventually technology to help keep our environment safe and healthy, for the benefit of all of its users as we continue to explore and utilize space.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.