Sustainability in Space Infrastructure: Interview with Charity Weeden

Sustainability in Space Infrastructure: Interview with Charity Weeden

. 8 min read

Charity Weeden works at the intersection of diplomacy, policy, and the aerospace industry, serving as the Vice President of Global Space Policy and Government Relations at Astroscale, a company focused on promoting space sustainability. She is also the chair of the Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Most people think of space as a vast, endless entity, but much of your work implies that space is actually a limited resource. Why do you believe that space sustainability is relevant and important?

You’re absolutely right. Space is big. However, we use it in a very limited way. We use specific orbits because they provide an advantage on remote sensing or communications. We’ve been a spacefaring species for 60-plus years, and there’s been upwards of 10,000 launches in that time. And we’ve treated these orbital highways as junk highways, like throwing our trash out the car window driving down a highway. Unfortunately, [in space], it doesn’t go to the side of the road, it stays in the middle of the road. And it’s flying at 17,000 miles an hour in some places. So you think about six decades of that behavior, and we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble.

The troubles here are multiple. There are over 8,000 metric tons of leftover rocket bodies, debris, wrenches, and other things like that in various orbital regimes. Some of them [are] concentrated into clusters as well. Next, there are fragments or leftover satellites. They are 10 centimeters and up and can be damaging, even fatal, if they hit an operational satellite. There are about 30,000 such fragments right now. But some [fragments] go down to 1 centimeter, and we don’t have good tracking capability [for them]. There are upwards of 900,000 such pieces and sometimes, they can even go below 1 centimeter. The Aerospace Corporation had a really good comparison of the energy that can be netted from being hit by a 1 centimeter, blueberry-sized object, and it’s like an anvil falling on your satellite. So it’s pretty destructive. And the European Space Agency counts 150 million [fragments less than 1cm]. On top of six decades of this, there are thousands and thousands of satellites that are planning to be launched.

So why does sustainability in space matter? Well, we are embedded in a data society. I was just on an airplane yesterday, and I was pleasantly surprised that my aircraft internet connection allowed streaming services. The end user is just expecting [such services] to always be there, and space helps us do that. Space also plays a major role in national security. We have satellites looking out for missiles as we speak. There are also satellites that provide safety and civil services like weather and GPS, which also affect national security and commercial services. Position navigation timing altogether is massively embedded into our society. It’s also connected to our financial and timing systems, as our most precise timing system is in space, which affects things like ATMs and building access. And then we get into the commercial world. There is about $200 billion purely in commercial services, and so many jobs are reliant on it. So space sustainability is important because we have so much to lose.

So, I think of space sustainability as threefold. It is the environmental piece, the sustainability of our planet as extended into space. [It is also] the economic side of things. If we add too much risk to an environment, we cannot conduct commerce because the cost-benefit analysis will tip the scales. And that is why we need to have supporting logistics to keep this infrastructure clear and operational, just like you have tow trucks running up and down the I-95 to make sure things are clear. And then finally, political sustainability. It is not necessarily the foremost thing you think about when you think of the sustainability of orbits, but this is about public interest and public understanding so that our representatives are well informed and can authorize appropriate government action to sustain GPS and other critical programs for society.

It seems that most existing regulations on space sustainability are built upon the precedent set by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. What are the difficulties, or perhaps opportunities, of working in a field with relatively little existing legislation?

I’m so excited to be in a role where we get to create. Here we are with a potential new market, an in-orbit servicing market that is just emerging. And we get to play a very heavy hand in shaping the regulatory and policy environment. The United Nations Outer Space Treaty’s Article 6 is probably one of the most important articles: a launching state is responsible for its private actors’ actions in space. Translating that, if I act irresponsible in space, it’s the US taxpayers that will foot the bill. And I have a sneaking suspicion that [irresponsible private action] is not an okay thing—it is not a way to build a space economy, let alone it costs more for me to operate in space because it [creates congestion]. I’d have to dive and dodge around objects, meaning I’m not focused on my mission and I’m not serving my customers. Customers won’t like this and investors won’t like this.

The Outer Space Treaty still stands—there are still very basic fundamentals we can grow the space economy with. But it’s up to the individual nations. If we want to create new rules at the UN level, that will take decades. The long-term sustainability guidelines that were recently approved and took eight to 10 years to come up with and negotiate, are very high-level, and they’re all voluntary. So if we think we’re going to have an easy button and say the UN will do it, I would challenge that.

So what do we do in the meantime? We don’t throw our hands up and say, well, let’s just work towards overseas diplomacy. There’s actually a pathway to changing international norms, standards, rules, agreements, and, at the end of the day, treaties. How do we start? A little bit of peer pressure. There are multiple operators in orbit that are vying for the same customers, so you’re going to need to prove to your customer that you’re better than the competitor. The fact that you’re sustainable, especially in this age when all investors are looking for better management and [Environmental, Social, and Governance measures], these operators will voluntarily see this as an opportunity to gain more customers. But that’s all voluntary.

The next step forward, starting to get a little more firm, is international standards. ISO 24113, the debris mitigation standard, was updated in 2019. It’s not very prescriptive, although it does follow multilateral guidelines, including those set by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). It doesn’t really go far right now, maybe it needs to be refreshed even though it was refreshed recently, but that is the standard. Some governments are going to take these standards and require their operators adhere to them. So even though [standards are] voluntary, [they do] seep into the more formal side that we’re looking for. [They] should set performance standards—once your satellite is not operational, get it out of orbit in a year, for example. There is actually movement for satellites to be disposed of within five years, instead of the current 25. Will that seep into regulation? That’s a question at the [Federal Communications Commission] right now.

But that’s domestic, and just because one country does it doesn’t mean all the countries are going to do it. A lot of people say that’s a problem, so why do we bother updating regulations? Because of leadership. Those that make the rules generally have others follow those rules. The US is a prime example of this. A lot of nations around the world are looking to the US to lead on this, [and] they will follow suit. All they need is one nation to say “alright, five years, 99 percent removal rate or more,” and create those new regulations. Then, once you get multilateral momentum on this, it makes it a lot easier to make [effective regulation] an international norm.

How has your work in space sustainability as a whole been impacted by the fact that you are largely in the private sector? Would it have been different if you worked at a government or intergovernmental agency?

It differs from state to state. Some nations, especially at COPUOS, know the space very well, some of them don’t. And they negotiate items. Until, I’d say, 10 years ago, it wasn’t necessarily a given that industry would have a voice. COPUOS has opened up observer status to a lot of NGOs, giving them opportunities to influence the COPUOS process. Other [ways to influence COPUOS] would be through governments themselves. Happily, the US State Department is very industry friendly when it comes to giving industry a voice not only at COPUOS, but also at the General Assembly. So I feel industry has a pathway to speak at COPUOS, but other nations may not feel that way.

The other thing that’s important here is that industry, by far, has the plurality of operational satellites in orbit. And supporting industry is now a national priority to many nations to get their space industry thriving. So the power balance between government and industry is shifting a little bit. Of course, government is always responsible for private actors. But I feel the ability to provide a voice and have it weigh a lot shifting too. We’re talking about satellites in orbit, the potential of a trillion-dollar space economy. Growing a space industry is the darling of nations, whether large or small or emerging. They see this as an opportunity to advance their society, to create well-paying jobs, to educate scores of talent, to embrace new technologies. And I think nations around the world see space not as a geopolitical space race, but an economic space race.

That’s why I feel Astroscale has a huge voice, because we’re situated across four [major regions] around the world, we’re pretty well represented around the world. And, regarding space sustainability and on-orbit services, we are the supporter of the entire industry, whether it’s private or public. I can tell you from experience here in the US that we have a lot of dialogue with the US government on how we can grow the space economy through space sustainability, whether that is policy, adding value to how the US government creates policy. We’re active legislatively and regulatory wise. And then there’s a thought leadership item here too, providing education to the public and other folks that are interested. So, it’s a great time to be in industry. And it’s kind of hard to be in the government right now because you have to balance policy priorities. My hat’s off to anyone in government.

Speaking of your references to the growth of the space economy, the entrance of private companies promoting space travel and eventually, habitation, has been a prominent topic in discussions of both private space industry and space sustainability. Do you see human habitation in space as a feasible possibility and what role does space sustainability play?

We’re seeing an uptick in interest in human spaceflight, and we’re starting with the stepping stones of short duration flights. We’re also seeing a lot of investment in human habitats in orbit, but specifically low Earth orbit right now. So what on-orbit services are enabling is the opportunity of, if you can dream it, you can build it, on you go. It’s going to be important not only for debris mitigation, but you can build things that support humans in space from space. So you can launch things and assemble them in orbit, whereas before, the size of the back of a space shuttle was the size of the habitat you could build.

So that’s potential here. On-orbit servicing assembly manufacturing (OSAM) provides [opportunities for] maintenance, refueling, repurposing, assembly creating, manufacturing, and 3D-printing, all from orbit. You won’t have to wait for a launch and can develop infrastructure in space. And I think that’s going to be a big question as the ISS [International Space Station] is retired in 2030, and we look to continue commerce in orbit that can create an environment where humans can thrive. Our services, beyond cleaning up debris, will help enable that future.

Yarlagadda spoke with Weeden on March 15, 2022. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.