Simonetta Di Pippo is the former Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). She has also previously served as the Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency and the Director of the Observation of the Universe at the Italian Space Agency.
We often hear the word “sustainability” in the context of environmental protection on Earth. Could you define “space sustainability” for our readers? How is sustainability in outer space different from sustainability on Earth?
We don't have a codified, unified, and accepted description of what we mean for
“sustainability.” But, I can say the following: The space sector is really evolving, the number of launches per year is doubling every year. Last year, we went close to 2,000 satellites. The year before was 1,260. And the year before, half of it. We see the presence of mega-constellations, which have thousands and thousands of satellites—for example, Starlink from Elon Musk's approach to connectivity. We have a lot of other constellations coming, like OneWeb, as an an example, plus other constellations from China, etcetera.
The point is that the number of satellites in orbit is increasing, which is good on one side because it means that space is becoming an asset for improving the quality of life on Earth. We all often think about space as something far away from us and from what we do on on Earth, but that’s not true at all. In a lot of things we do during the day, we use satellites, sometimes more than one at the same time—for example, for geolocation, navigation, etcetera, and for precise location. Having said that, it's clear that there is also an appetite from developing and emerging countries to start becoming part of this process. Together with mega-constellations, the fact that the private sector is becoming more and more important for providing service and applications, that governments are more and more interested in using space for critical infrastructure for government-related topics, means that we cannot stop launching. We can only deal with this issue.
On top of that, this development brings with it the increase of space debris, or the junk in orbit. This is creating a lot of troubles because if you are a space operator, if you have some venture capitalists supporting your business plan, you want to have your assets in orbit, stable. You want an environment which allows you to go ahead with your business model. So, you need a stable space environment, which means that sustainability is not only an issue related to having the space environment clean, to preserving space as a global common for you and for the next generations to come, but also to allow space operators on the commercial sector to have a safe, secure, and stable space environment. This means that the long-term sustainability of outer space activities is key for life on Earth. That's the point. Everything is linked. We cannot stop, and we don't want to stop the increasing use of space assets for improving the quality of life on Earth. But in doing so, we need stability. We need predictability. So, we need sustainability, long term sustainability in orbit to support the space economy. More or less, that's the situation, which is quite fascinating because it's putting all the elements together.
In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to space sustainability?
Well, there are a few issues. One is that we need to increase awareness of the importance–in particular for new players–that when they start their operations in orbits, they really start them with a responsible approach, with responsible operations and responsible behavior. This is extremely important. That's where UNOOSA plays an important role in increasing awareness, in doing capacity-building, in particular with emerging and developing countries, and also collecting best practices and lessons learned from the biggest space-spending countries because they have the highest number of satellites in orbit.
Therefore, we can learn a lot–we being the space community–and we can help a developing and emerging country benefiting from that. So, it's international cooperation at its best because very often, UNOOSA does activities with developing and emerging countries using data which are provided by space assets owned by a restricted number of countries. This is extremely interesting because also it’s linked to the fact that an action in space made by one player may have a lot of impact on other players, so the space environment is really a place where you need to cooperate. Otherwise, it cannot be managed.
Some have argued that space debris could trigger conflict if it crashes into a satellite and a country misperceives the collision as an attack. Would you say such a scenario is likely? If so, how can the international community prevent conflict over debris?
This topic is under the umbrella of what we call “space traffic management” or “space traffic coordination.” Clearly, there is a need for tracking the satellites and having what we call “space situational awareness,” which is usually done at the national level. So, what the Office for Outer Space Affairs at the UN advocates for is to have a mechanism that allows the coordination of all space traffic, which is increasing.
There is an important document, which was issued by the UN Secretary General in September last year, called "Our Common Agenda." This common agenda will lead to a big summit in September 2023 called Summit of the Future, and one of the seven high level tracks in the Summit of the Future is space—in particular: space traffic management and global governance of outer space activities. So, there are a lot of discussions, both in Vienna and in New York. In New York, you have, in the General Assembly, represented the full spectrum of the 193 member states. The combination of the activities in Vienna, more from a substantive perspective, and the political discussion in in New York, will bring, hopefully, a political agreement on how to deal with space traffic management.
Of all your work in the space industry, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Well, I have to say, I'm getting older, which means that I've got experience—I have now more than 35 years in the business. I'm really proud of a lot of achievements in different ways. Before becoming the Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs, I was at the Italian Space Agency and at the European Space Agency. In those roles, I was more dealing with international cooperation in bilateral, trilateral, also multilateral levels. But still, the main job was to put together new programs, usually big programs, either the contribution to the International Space Station, or big scientific missions in the solar system, etcetera. It was a completely different perspective from the one of Director of the Office for Outer Space appears because the role of Director of UNOOSA is the operations side, so what UNOOSA does with space assets in orbit to improve the quality of life on Earth. So, it's an interesting combination in my life, where I had the possibility to look at the issues at a national level when I was at the Italian Space Agency, at a regional level when I was at the European Space Agency, and then at a global level, and also looking at space from different angles. This is probably a privilege because it has allowed me to have really the full picture. And it's not so easy to have a combination of technical, scientific, diplomatic skills all together. So I'm quite proud of what happened until now.
I hope to be able to continue to advocate for space as a key tool for sustainability, also on Earth, because one of the important points is that space is really a key tool also for helping member states in achieving their goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In September 2015, the UN approved this bold agenda, which says that by 2030, we should be able to achieve a lot of targets under the umbrella of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which go from eradicating poverty, to land use, from justice to smart cities, from climate action to quality education. It's very broad. These are really the main topics, the main challenges of humanity right now.
I believe that space is a good accelerator for helping member states in achieving these goals. UNOOSA made a study together with the GSA—the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Space Agency (GNSS)—so, the European Union Space Agency. A few years ago they combined data of Copernicus, which is the observation program of Europe, and Galileo, which is the GNSS program. They analyzed the 169 targets which underpin the 17 SDGs and found that more than 40 percent of these targets can only be achieved if we use space as a tool for achieving them. If we add satellite communications we can easily go above 50 percent. It's a huge number. Without space, more or less, you cannot do anything. That's really the reason why I'm advocating, every time I can for the importance of space, also for sustainability on Earth, as absolutely mandatory.
Young spoke with Director Di Pippo on March 1, 2022. The interview was conducted before Director Di Pippo left her role as Director of UNOOSA. The interview has been lightly edited to reflect this change, as well as for length and clarity.