Achieving Sustainability in and with Satellite Infrastructure

Reducing emissions, stopping climate change, and making modern industry and society more sustainable in general have become the primary aims of a wide variety of organisations and government associations around the world. In the European Green Deal, for example, the EU has set its sights on achieving climate neutrality by 2050.[1]

Space infrastructure has a major part to play in the context of sustainability and the preservation of our climate. These days, satellite constellations and the various other elements involved are closely intertwined with many areas of the economy and society at large. The three most important fields in which satellite infrastructures are applied in space are navigation, communication, and Earth observation. In addition to these areas, there are myriad international missions that together form a highly complex infrastructure network in orbit, which in turn makes intelligent, sustainable infrastructure possible back on Earth.

To name just one example, satellites deliver valuable data that is essential in researching, documenting, and combating global climate change. One of the newest satellites to have begun orbiting our planet is Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, which will be collecting measurements on global sea levels with centimetre-level accuracy and has been launched by the European Copernicus programme on 21 November 2020. Along with five other satellites (including POSEIDON-4), Sentinel-6 is meant to help determine how much sea levels are rising around the world with even greater precision and thereby enable predictions of related future developments. In 2024, the French-German satellite MERLIN is scheduled to follow Sentinel-6 into orbit. Thanks to its lidar (light detection and ranging) instrument, this minisatellite will be able to provide crucial data on global methane emissions. Methane is a key contributor to global warming, and although much higher levels have been detected in Earth’s atmosphere in recent years, not enough research has been conducted on the possible causes. Scientists across the globe are hoping that this new mission offers some essential insights.

Meanwhile,  the space industry itself also needs to become more sustainable and improve its resource consumption in order to do its part in the effort to attain the objectives of the European Green Deal.

The building and commissioning of satellites remains a process that is relatively lengthy and resource-intensive. At the same time, the amount of free “space” out there continues to dwindle. This makes smooth functionality and a long useful life very important. However, the growing number of objects present and the decline in available orbital paths are not the only challenges that are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. Satellite infrastructures are also heavily influenced by the weather conditions in space, the threat of collisions with space debris, and technical disruptions (due to age and wear, for example). And let’s not forget targeted attacks involving jamming, spoofing, or other forms of cyberattacks that seek to impair a satellite’s functions.

When satellites temporarily malfunction or fail entirely due to such attacks, technical outages, or inclement weather, the ramifications include more than just economic losses for the organisations involved. It also puts the security of the object(s) affected and that of other satellites in orbit at risk. In addition, the data lost in the process can hinder further infrastructure and companies on Earth, resulting in more negative consequences for society and the economy.

Ongoing disruptions (including the eventual loss of an entire satellite) present an even greater challenge. If a satellite is no longer usable and needs to be replaced, the resources consumed in building another – and especially in putting the new satellite into orbit – place additional strain on the environment. Meanwhile, non-functional satellites block otherwise usable orbits, as well. Disposing of a satellite by causing it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere or pushing it into an unused orbit is a complex affair, and not always possible.

This makes it all the more important that new and existing satellites be produced and used with an eye towards increasing safety, efficiency, and longevity. That applies both to technical aspects like materials, manufacturing, and control and to operation and usage at the software and data level.

Visionaries paving the way for sustainable satellite systems

Making spaceflight sustainable and leveraging satellite services to achieve similar advancements on Earth is going to require fresh innovations and solutions. “I think we agree, all of us, that it’s no longer a question if we should act towards a better and more sustainable future, but [that] it’s about how… And this is why we should put a lot of attention to entrepreneurs who are trying to contribute with their solution to a more sustainable society, economy and ecology,” said Dr Heba Aguib at the INNOspace Masters conference in October 2020. There are a variety of ways to attain greater sustainability in space infrastructures, and many of them incorporate seemingly unrelated fields into their novel approaches. More and more visionaries and research teams are working on solutions for future challenges we will face both in orbit and here on Earth. There are plenty of examples that already show how innovative solutions can be integrated into satellite construction and how existing constellations can be operated in a more efficient and sustainable manner.

New missions are increasingly making use of minisatellites (“CubeSats”) that are just 10 centimetres across and designed for highly specialised functions and uses. The German start-up DeployablesCubed, for instance, is combining the advantages of satellites large and small by developing structures that can be transported in highly compact ways and then expanded into their actual forms once they arrive in space. Among other benefits, this will make fewer rocket launches necessary, which will reduce emissions over the long term. For this innovative solution approach, the DeployablesCubed team was named the winner of the INNOspace Masters ESA BIC Challenge 2019.

Satellites that are already in use can also profit from such innovations. In its Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) software, OKAPI:Orbits now offers a solution that is designed to mitigate the increasing risk of collisions and disruptions in orbit. The SST concept took second place in the INNOspace Masters ESA BIC Challenge 2019 and went on to receive further developmental support in the ESA’s business incubation programme in Hesse, Germany. This culminated in OKAPI:Orbits’ first collision prevention product for satellite operators, which it brought to market in October 2020. With its AI-driven software solution, this young German company is making a key contribution to more efficient and sustainable space applications by protecting objects that are already in orbit from potential damage.

Along with innovative approaches that make operations more sustainable in space, the use of satellite services presents a great deal of potential for greener infrastructure solutions on Earth. The early-warning system ERMES, for example, uses satellite data to monitor slope stability and ground subsidence along roads and railways. This makes it possible to optimise maintenance activities and improve infrastructure durability, which in turn helps prevent accidents, delays, and the need for costly repairs. At INNOspace Masters 2019-20, ERMES came in third in the DB Netz AG Challenge.

INNOspace Masters 2020/21 is looking for sustainable infrastructures for space and on Earth

Infrastructures up in space and down on Earth are highly interconnected, and satellite services are fundamental in keeping everyday digital life running smoothly. In light of the growing challenges being posed by climate change, advancements are needed in both realms. They range from space-aided innovations for terrestrial infrastructures to space technologies that consume fewer resources and improvements in satellite security and efficiency. To meet these needs, numerous initiatives have been established, including innovation competitions in which start-ups and other companies (as well as research institutes and universities) are invited to develop and submit new concepts and ideas. INNOspace Masters, which has been promoting and rewarding proposals that foster the transfer of knowledge and technology between the space sector and other industries since 2015, is one of the leading events in this area.

The latest edition (2020/21) is focusing in particular on sustainable infrastructures both in space and on Earth. Held by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), INNOspace Masters also counts a number of prominent players from the business world among its partners. These include Airbus, OHB, and DB Netz AG, as well as the ESA Business Incubation Centres based in Germany. Each of these partners presents its own challenge while offering tailored prizes and cooperative opportunities designed to enable three winners to turn their proposed ideas into reality. Every year, the overall competition presents a total of EUR 1.3 million in cash prizes/funding and other support.

INNOspace Masters welcomes innovations and ideas at any stage of development. Whether entrants wish to submit applied research or a finished product or service, its various partners are sure to offer the right challenge and assistance to the eventual winners. Potential participants from the fields of research and industry are invited to enter INNOspace Masters by 5 February 2021.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_de

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