Executive summary: The space industry’s environmental stakes
Space industry actors must act now towards a more sustainable environment. Because the market is set to triple by 2040, its environmental footprint will explode along with increasing regulatory pressure. Succeeding in this market tomorrow means hastening the deployment of eco-design and sustainable innovation levers considering the significant time it takes to develop them.
The starting point is known; by prioritizing the launch and space segments – which account for the majority of these impacts – and striving towards the development of low-footprint components and cleaner propulsion technologies, the industry can effectively become sustainable.
Developing a sustainable space industry is achievable if these three challenges are addressed in the short-term:
- Strengthen the measuring and understanding of the industry impacts.
- Accelerate deployment of sustainable innovation and eco-design.
- Anticipate the evolution of normative and customer requirements.
The space industry’s environmental footprint
The low CO2 emissions of the space sector are just the tip of the iceberg, representing 3% of the global human CO2. However, the sector is exponentially ramping up and will triple in two decades to reach more than USD 1.5bn in 2040. The number of operational satellites will also quadruple by 2030. Subsequently, there is a significant increase of WW climate impact and new regulations reflecting governmental targets of both space industry and climate impact mitigation. It is therefore more urgent than ever for space industry players to act on sustainability.
In particular, the space sector has its own specific environmental impacts, requiring customized countermeasures. Climate change is not the only impact to be taken into account. Stratospheric ozone depletion, mineral resources depletion and other impacts can become as harmful. Space debris (with 15 times bullet speed) can damage satellites and cause collisions in outer space. Finally, an overcrowded space pollutes the night-sky will result in half as many visible stars in 2040.
On the other hand, the space sector remains too dependent on specific rare-earth materials and energy resources with 98% of REEs (Rare Earth Elements) used in the EU being imported from China in 2021.
It has also been noted that climate change endangers the industry; rising waters jeopardize up to two thirds of NASA’s infrastructure. Geopolitical conflicts are also shaking the industry’s foundations by endangering the access to raw materials and energy resources.
The space segmentation’s challenges and levers
The space sector is divided into 3 segments: space, launch and ground with the space and lunch accounting for most of the global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion.
All three segments have their own challenges and sustainability levers to activate:
- The ground segment is driven by energy consumption and equipment manufacturing. Reducing energy consumption, setting up sustainable energy production and finally running performance vs impact trade-off for specific equipment can help reduce the impact.
- The launch segment drives most of the impact, then followed by the propellant manufacturing. Using gases with less Stratospheric Ozone Depletion impacts, ban propellants with high global warming impacts, including afterburning impacts into Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and exploring reusable launchers will help significantly.
- In the space segment, high mineral depletion due to the production of both polluting propulsion means and components. Optimizing Research & Development (R&D) operations, limiting the environmental impact of tests, implementing low-carbon propulsion technologies, and developing space debris reduction strategies are some of the levers that can be activated.
Conclusion: The industry’s global challenges
Finally, the space industry actors are now facing three challenges.
- The industry needs to strengthen the measuring and understanding of the environmental footprint by adapting the LCA methodology to the sector specificities and implementing efficient measurement tools and data.
- The industry needs to deploy eco-design and sustainable innovation by establishing the right organization and methods along with management and trade-off tools.
- Last but not least, the industry needs to anticipate the evolution of normative and customer requirements by capturing and integrating them into technological and strategic roadmaps.
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