With more and more state and private entities setting their sights on space, Europe will need to assert itself, but in a safe, responsible way.
PARIS — Space is the most beautiful place on Earth. That's what I realized when I came back from my space flight, on June 24, 1985. But unless we rethink the rules governing our starry sky, space could also present some very real dangers.
Never before has the adventure of space travel attracted so many players, from states to private companies. And no longer is there just one space-race, but many, and much of it driven by the private sector, a movement sometimes referred to as NewSpace. There's the lunar base, the conquest of Mars, new orbital stations, manned space flights and mega-constellations of satellites.
NASA's SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station, rocket launched on April 23, 2021. — Photo: NASA/ZUMA Wire/ZUMA
The latter are particularly problematic, as companies all want their satellites in low orbit to provide high-speed connection, power the Internet of Things, and provide observation services. As such, this tiny strip in space between 400 km (the orbit of the ISS) and 1,500 km is currently being colonized: Starlink already has more than 1,200 satellites in orbit out of the 30,000 to 40,000 devices that are planned.
Amazon is getting on board as well. Its Project Kuiper has already been granted authorization for 6,000 satellites. China, for its part, has allowed 15 Chinese companies to get a share of the pie. And Europe too has made it clear that it wants to get in on other action.
Our near-Earth space could turn into a new sword of Damocles above our heads.
Last year, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton announced the launch of the bloc's own mega-constellation project. But to meet this challenge, Europe will have to change its space economic model, by reducing the cost of its launch vehicles, developing its own processes to manage space traffic and debris, and working more effectively with start-ups. This industrial gamble can only succeed if Europe tackles another equally difficult challenge: establishing responsible operating and regulatory standards within low earth orbit.
As space becomes useful for all, the number of objects orbiting around the Earth is de facto multiplying exponentially. While humanity has put some 9,000 satellites into orbit since Sputnik, a mega-constellation project alone involves two to three times that amount. And as of right now, about 50 such projects are in the works. It's clear, as a result, that we will very soon be confronted with new risks of collision, debris and interference.
In the absence of rules to better anticipate and manage these risks, our near-Earth space could turn into a new sword of Damocles above our heads: a new environmental, technological and industrial trap. Rules should be preventive. Among other things, operators of mega-constellations must be required to assess the environmental impact of their projects.
Former French austronaut Patrick Baudry. — Photo: RCA La Radio
Prevention is crucial in a sector where finding fixes — such as the collection of debris — is astronomically expensive at best and improbable at worst. Most of all, let us not forget that how we use space will directly affect our condition and quality of life on Earth!
Europe must respond to this double challenge. If the bloc doesn't decide today to get politically involved in the regulation of low-earth orbit, it will surely lose the little autonomy it has left. We don't want to be left behind. But we also don't want to get caught up in a race without rules. Instead, let's show the way to a safe and well-managed space! Starting today, we must learn to use space in a more responsible way than we have down here on Earth.
*Patrick Baudry is a French author, lecturer and former astronaut.