In an effort to address the escalating issue of orbital debris, the European Space Agency (ESA) and three prominent European satellite manufacturers, Airbus Defence and Space, OHB, and Thales Alenia Space, have announced their intent to develop a “Zero Debris Charter.” The charter, unveiled during the Paris Air Show, aims to establish guidelines and regulations to mitigate the growth of space debris.
Under the Zero Debris Charter, the principle is simple: satellite operators would be expected to ensure that no debris is left behind in space. The goal is for satellite operators to either deorbit their satellites themselves at the end of their operational lives by 2030 or hire companies that provide active debris removal services to do so. The details and final text of the charter are expected to be refined and completed by the end of the year.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher emphasized that the charter could potentially be incorporated into regulations, allowing governments to work exclusively with satellite providers that adhere to these standards. The aim is to create a system where only data or information is purchased from companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.
While the participating companies have already endorsed the World Economic Forum’s guidelines, the specific benefits of the Zero Debris Charter were not explicitly outlined during the announcement. However, some executives present at the event praised the charter for its potential to establish requirements and standards.
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the charter, executives expressed caution about the solution being limited to European companies alone. They stressed the importance of global regulations to address this worldwide problem effectively. They highlighted that without universal compliance, the initiative would have limited impact and European companies would face a disadvantage in the global market.
Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space, emphasized the necessity of worldwide regulations, stating, “If this is not applied to the rest of the world, it will have no effect at the end. It will collectively fail. And, on top of that, European industry will not be on a level playing field with its competitors. That would be the worst situation.”
Lutz Bertling, a board member of OHB, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the need for real international regulation to effectively manage the issue of space debris.
While the efforts of the ESA and European manufacturers are commendable, the broader challenge lies in achieving international cooperation. The United Nations, through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), plays a vital role in setting global standards for space activities. However, progress within COPUOS can be slow and painstaking due to the multitude of perspectives and interests involved.
As the volume of satellites and debris in low Earth orbit continues to increase, the urgency to establish effective space sustainability measures grows. The development of the Zero Debris Charter represents a step forward, but true progress will require international collaboration, commitment, and coordination to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities.