Minimize SSR Debris

SSR (Space Sustainability Rating) to shine light on the Debris Problem

Mission Certification System    References

There’s a problem brewing overhead. Invisible to the naked eye and relatively unheard of, it threatens our future in space – space debris. A new ‘Space Sustainability Rating’ is currently in development that will shed light on the problem, scoring space operators on the sustainability of their missions, increasing the transparency of their contributions to protecting the space environment and encouraging and recognizing responsible behavior. 1)

The global initiative, launched by the World Economic Forum, is the first of its kind. In a situation in which no single government or authority has the power to set and enforce strict rules of behavior for all space-faring organizations, this project promises to be a game changer.

Much like the energy efficiency and nutrition labels now common on household items, food products and consumer goods, the SSR (Space Sustainability Rating) will make clear what individual companies and organizations are doing to sustain and improve the health of the near-Earth environment.

SSR-Debris_Auto2

Figure 1: SSR graphic. The global Space Sustainability Rating initiative, launched by the World Economic Forum, is the first of its kind. In a situation in which no single government or authority has the power to set and enforce strict rules of behavior for all space-faring organizations, this project promises to be a game changer. Much like the energy efficiency and nutrition labels now common on household items, food products and consumer goods, the Space Sustainability Rating will make clear what individual companies and organizations are doing to sustain and improve the health of the near-Earth environment (image credit: ESA)

Sustainability rating enters next phase

The SSR initiative has been developed over the past two years by the Forum, ESA and a joint team led by the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, with collaboration from BryceTech and the University of Texas at Austin.

For the crucial next step, the Space Center (eSpace) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) has been selected to lead and operate the Space Sustainability Rating in preparation for its roll out.

“The Forum is very glad to support such an innovative approach to the global challenge of space debris,” says Nikolai Khlystov, Community Lead for Mobility and Space at the World Economic Forum.

“Incentivising better behavior by enabling actors to compete on sustainability will create a ‘race to the top’ and eSpace at EPFL is a great organization to take the SSR to the next level.”

ESA measures the impact

The SSR rating system will score the sustainability of spaceflight operators based on factors ranging from data sharing, choice of orbit, measures taken to avoid collisions and plans to de-orbit satellites at end of mission to how easily their satellites can be detected and identified from the ground. There will be ‘bonus marks’ for adding optional elements, such as grappling fixtures, that could be used for the possible future active removal of debris.

SSR-Debris_Auto1

Figure 2: The picture shows Sentinel-1A’s solar array before and after the impact of a millimeter-size particle on the second panel. The damaged area has a diameter of about 40 cm, which is consistent on this structure with the impact of a fragment of less than 5 mm in size. The impact incident was discovered in 2016 (image credit: ESA)

“The SSR aims to influence behavior by all spaceflight actors, especially commercial entities, and help bring into common usage the sustainable practices that we desperately require,” said Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Safety Program. "To achieve this, the SSR rating includes a peer-reviewed assessment of the short- and long-term risks that any mission presents to other operators and for our orbital environment in general."

Powered by ESA expertise

ESA’s Space Debris Office, located at the Agency’s ESOC mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, has for years studied the debris environment, becoming a world-leading authority on this issue of global concern.

The Agency’s role in the development of the Space Sustainability Rating includes helping to define the ‘rating architecture’, i.e. the criteria on which space missions should be judged, and providing expert analysis, data and technical know-how developed over many years.

One particularly important component of the SSR is the new methodology for quantifying the space debris risk associated with a mission. It takes into account the additional burden the new mission poses to the operations of existing ones and its potential impact on the long-term evolution of the space debris environment.

Once the rating system has entered operation, ESA will support EPFL in evaluating this potential impact for new space missions. The Agency will also take a seat on the Space Sustainability Rating Advisory Board, as well as continuing to assist in many other ways.

SSR-Debris_Auto0

Figure 3: Satellites vs Debris: Satellites in orbit share near-Earth space with millions of fast-moving and dangerous debris objects. From tiny fragments millimeters in size to entire satellites no longer working, no longer controlled, roaming the space highways, each debris piece travels many km/s. Any impact with one of these objects threatens to at least impair the functioning of a working spacecraft, or at worst destroy it altogether, creating ever more debris. - In this infographic from ESA and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), find out about the scale of the debris problem: how much of it is up there, what scales are we talking about, and what are our satellites are up against? (image credit: ESA / UNOOSA)

Rewarding good behavior

Satellites have become the backbone of our modern economies, providing navigation services, telecommunications, weather forecasting, climate monitoring and television broadcasts among many other critical services. Humankind’s reliance on space infrastructure is set to increase sharply with the launch of large constellations of small satellites designed to boost global internet access among other important services.

There are currently close to 4,000 active satellites in orbit, including the inhabited outposts of the International Space Station and the Tiangong Space Station of China (CSS), currently under construction.

Figure 4: This animation shows different types of space debris objects and different debris sizes in orbit around Earth. For debris objects bigger than 10 cm the data come from the US Space Surveillance Catalogue (video credit: ESA)

The information about debris objects smaller than 10 cm is based on a statistical model by ESA.

Number of space debris objects in orbit:

> 1m: 5,400 objects

> 10 cm: 34,000 objects (among them are only 2 000 active satellites)

> 1cm: 900,000 objects

> 1mm: 130,000,000 objects

Color code:

Red: satellites (functional or dysfunctional)

Yellow: rocket bodies

Green: mission related objects (covers, caps, adapters, etc.)

Blue: fragments.




New Space Sustainability Rating Addresses Space Debris with Mission Certification System

In early 2022, space organizations will be able to give their missions, including satellite launches and crewed missions, certifications for sustainability with the finalization of the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR). 2)

• New Space Sustainable Rating (SSR) has been developed to reduce space debris and help ensure that rapidly increasing space missions are managed safely and sustainably.

• SSR will score space missions based on markers such as evidenced-based debris mitigation and alignment with international guidelines.

• World Economic Forum announces today that the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) has been chosen to lead and operationalize the SSR. It will begin issuing sustainability certifications to mission operators in early 2022.

With ever more satellites being launched each year, the risk of collisions and the proliferation of space debris continues to rise. This has created a need to find ways to maximize the long-term sustainability of the space environment and encourage responsible behavior.

The SSR system aims to address these issues by quantifying the sustainable behavior of space actors. These scores will be based on factors ranging from data sharing, choice of orbit, measures taken to avoid collisions, plans to de-orbit satellites on completion of missions, and even how well they can be detected and identified from Earth. The choice and characteristics of a launch provider will also have an impact on the score.

There will be bonus marks for adding optional elements, such as de-orbiting fixtures, which could be used for the active removal of the object once its operational lifetime has been fulfilled.

“The Forum is very glad to support such an innovative approach to a global challenge of space debris,” said Nikolai Khlystov, Lead for Mobility and Space, World Economic Forum. “Incentivizing better behavior by having actors compete on sustainability will create a race to the top and eSpace at EPFL is a great organization to take the SSR to the next level.”

After a robust selection process involving close to 20 stakeholders, the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), based in Lausanne, has been selected to lead and operate the SSR, in preparation for the roll-out of the transparent system for scoring the space sustainability efforts of different space actors.

“Space sustainability is in eSpace’s DNA, as one of our research projects led to the creation of ClearSpace – a pioneer spin-off selected by ESA (European Space Agency) for the first debris removal mission. Hosting the SSR is a strategic move for our Center. With our experience and the partners that will support SSR at EPFL, Switzerland and international levels, we intend to initiate in 2022 what could be a game changer in the way space missions are carried out,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of eSpace.

“The SSR aims to influence behavior by all spaceflight actors, especially commercial entities, and help bring into common usage the sustainable practices that we desperately require,” said Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Safety Program. "To achieve this, the SSR rating includes a peer-reviewed assessment of the short- and long-term risks that any mission presents to other operators and for our orbital environment in general."

The SSR initiative was developed over the past two years by the Forum, the ESA and a joint team led by Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, with collaboration from BryceTech and the University of Texas at Austin, and it comes at a critical time. While satellites have long been used for navigation services, weather monitoring and television broadcasts, humankind’s reliance on space infrastructure is set to increase sharply with the launch of large constellations of small satellites designed to boost global internet access.

“The design process of the SSR catalyzed a creative community of commercial firms, universities, government agencies and civil society organizations,” said Danielle Wood, Director of the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. “There is more important work to do in engineering research, policy-making and norm building to ensure that the global community can operate in space for decades to come. All of us who contributed to the SSR are committed to continuing this important work and we hope others will continue to join in.”

There are now nearly 4,000 active satellites in orbit, including the inhabited outposts of the International Space Station and the Tiangong Space Station, currently under construction. As many more organizations from many more countries prepare to launch new missions, this number is set to grow exponentially. The risk of collisions will inevitably increase and raise questions about the capacity of near-Earth orbit to accommodate so many objects safely and sustainably.

By voluntarily taking part in the new SSR system, spacecraft operators, launch service providers and satellite manufacturers will be able to secure one of four levels of certification which they can share externally to show their mission’s level of sustainability.

This will increase transparency, without disclosing any mission-sensitive or proprietary information. The goal is to incentivize good behavior by all space actors in addressing the problem of space debris. A favorable score for a particular rated party might, for example, result in lower insurance costs or improved funding conditions from financial backers.

Over the two-year development period of the SSR, numerous operators within the space industry have been engaged in the evolution of the rating system and there is already widespread interest in this new tool. Several companies, including Airbus, Astroscale, AXA XL, elseco, Lockheed Martin, Planet, SpaceX and Voyager Space Holdings, have actively supported the SSR concept and expressed interest in participating once it is publicly launched.



1) ”Space sustainability rating to shine light on debris problem,” ESA Security & Safety, 17 June 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/
Space_sustainability_rating_to_shine_light_on_debris_problem

2) Madeleine Hillyer, ”New Space Sustainability Rating Addresses Space Debris with Mission Certification System,” World Economic Forum News Release, 17 June 2021, https://www.weforum.org/press/2021/06/
new-space-sustainability-rating-addresses-space-debris-with-mission-certification-system

Mission Certification System    References    Back to top