Space

U.K. government announces new space sustainability measures

WASHINGTON — The British government announced a series of measures June 23, from regulations to funding active debris removal projects, intended to make the country a leader in space sustainability.

George Freeman, minister for science, research and innovation, announced a package called the Plan for Space Sustainability intended to create a standard that will encourage companies, along with investors and insurers, to adopt best practices for sustainable space operations.

The goal of the effort is to “set a global commercial framework for the insurability, the licensing, the regulation of commercial satellites so that we drive down the cost for those who comply with the best standards of sustainability,” he said in a speech at the Fourth Summit for Space Sustainability by the Secure World Foundation and the U.K. Space Agency. “We have to mainstream sustainability in our commercial sector.”

The plan has four main elements, although Freeman provided few details about them in his remarks. One is a review of the U.K. regulatory framework for all orbital activities. “Our ambition is to lead in the global regulatory standards for orbital activities. We want it to be industry led and government backed,” he said. A second element is to work internationally on space sustainability in organizations such as the United Nations and the G-7 nations.

The third part of the plan is to develop “simple, accurate metrics” for measuring sustainability of space activities. Freeman was vague on what would be included on those metrics, which he said would be developed over the next several months, but said they could serve as a “kitemark,” or standard of safety and quality, that could attract companies as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) investors.

“To me, success will be when people start to say that you have to get your orbital license in the U.K. because if you’re compliant, the costs of insurance go down, the costs of licenses go down,” he said. “We need to give a lead and show what ESG-compliant space technology, space launch, space orbit programs look like. If we can do that, in a simple way to begin with, I think we’ll start to unlock some of that ESG funding.”

The fourth element is a modest amount of additional funding for an active debris removal program. The government said in a statement that it would provide £5 million ($6.1 million) for the next phase of that program, allowing it to “move at pace” to select two teams later this summer. The government awarded three contracts with a combined value of about £1 million last year to consortia led by Astroscale, ClearSpace and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. for initial feasibility studies.

The government also confirmed £5 million for the National Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme. That program is starting a collision assessment service for U.K.-licensed satellite operators.

Freeman’s speech came a day after recorded remarks at the conference by Charles, Prince of Wales, on space sustainability. “We must develop a sustainable way, a durable way, of benefiting from space, just as we must here on the Earth,” he said.

He called for an “Astro Carta” for space sustainability, one he said could build upon the U.S.-led Artemis Accords “to establish both peaceful but, crucially, sustainable space exploration.” He didn’t elaborate on what that agreement would contain or how it would be developed.

Freeman endorsed the Astro Carta concept, drawing parallels with England’s Magna Carta. “What Prince Charles is setting out, very powerfully, is that we need a similarly noble set of principles to guide us,” he said. “I think the Astro Carta piece is about setting some principles, that we must go into space in this next phase with sustainability absolutely at the heart of everything we do.”

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