The great space clean-up

Space Sustainable Rating references ISO standards to help reduce the amount of debris in our galaxy.

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Hugely important for areas such as telecommunications, national security and space science, activity in our orbital sector is rocketing, but it comes at a price: junk. Already, around 900 000 pieces of space debris such as old rockets and satellites are floating around up there, posing serious risks to space missions. World leaders at the G7 earlier this year called on all countries to work together to clean it up, and encouraged collaboration with ISO to help build a better future.

The recently launched Space Sustainable Rating (SSR [1]) aims to improve the health of the near-Earth environment. The global initiative has been led by the World Economic Forum (WEF), together with the European Space Agency, the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, and the University of Texas at Austin and Bryce Tech.

ISO standards are among the suite of international guidelines used in this industry-wide approach. These include most notably ISO 24113, Space systems – Space debris mitigation requirements, and ISO 26900, Space data and information transfer systems – Orbit data messages.

Nick Tongson, Manager of the ISO committee of experts that develop standards for space debris mitigation and Director of Standards at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), said initiatives like this are important to tackle this growing problem.

“As space is a globally shared resource, international collaboration is essential to reduce the creation of new debris that will result with the increase in traffic,” he said. “ISO International Standards, therefore, play an integral role by providing guidance to organizations on how they can contribute to the space clean-up effort.”

By assigning scores to space missions based on a range of parameters, the SSR will encourage more responsible behaviour in space through increasing the transparency of organizations’ efforts in this area. One of those parameters is compliance with international guidelines for space debris mitigation, which includes several ISO standards. This is not the first such initiative aimed at cleaning up space. It is, however, the first international rating system aligned to the United Nations’ Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.

ISO has a long history in developing standards for space, hundreds of which are used by the many space missions around the world. International Standards for space are developed by ISO technical committee ISO/TC 20, Aircraft and space vehicles, through its subcommittees SC 13, Space data and information transfer systems, and SC 14, Space systems and operations. The secretariat of ISO/TC 20 and these two subcommittees is held by ANSI, ISO’s member for the USA.

The standards can be purchased from your national ISO member or the ISO Store.

  1. The EPFL Space Center (eSpace) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), based in Lausanne, Switzerland, has been selected to lead and operate the SSR going forward.
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