4. The growth and sustainability of the space economy under threat

These preceding chapters have shown how some space programmes and infrastructure help in better managing several global challenges faced by our societies. However, this chapter argues that the sustainability of the space sector itself is not a given, as it faces a growing number of challenges.

The chapter first focuses on the considerable vulnerabilities that the recent growth in the sector has unveiled, in terms of a fragile industrial base for manufacturing, insufficient recruitment to the sector and an infrastructure vulnerable to natural and human-made hazards.

Furthermore, it takes a closer look at the environmental externalities resulting from space activities, which at current and expected future levels of activity can no longer be ignored. Orbital pollution, in the form of space debris, poses a serious threat to continued space activities and the crucial role they now play for many other sectors of the economy.

The space industry supply chain and ecosystem dedicated to manufacturing spacecraft, launchers and associated subsystems and components is characterised by low production volumes and high specialisation (both in the use of materials and of industrial processes) as well as high R&D intensity. This leads to a high cost per weight for space components with a large share of the cost of custom-made materials dedicated to R&D activities as opposed to manufacturing (Wilson, 2022[1]). Technological, economic and regulatory barriers have traditionally limited the number of market entries.

Space manufacturers furthermore often rely on single, mainly government, sources of revenues. In upstream space activities, dominated by manufacturing and launch activities (see the OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy for more details (2022[2])), public organisations sometimes account for some 60-70% of markets in both Europe and Asia. Below is a more detailed breakdown of data from 2021, with the share of revenue associated with sales to the public sector and public sector grants/subsidies.

  • 40% of total upstream segment revenues in Canada (CSA, 2023[3])

  • 69% of private sector domestic upstream revenues in Korea (Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2022[4])

  • 70% of revenues in the upstream segment in Europe (Eurospace, 2022[5])

  • 67% of domestic revenues in Japan (mainly upstream segment) (SJAC, 2023[6])

  • Some 16% of US (mainly upstream) commercial respondents to the 2014 US industrial base deep dive survey declared themselves “dependent” on US government space programmes (US Department of Commerce, 2014[7]).

Available data also suggest a notable reliance on government funding of R&D. The most recent industry surveys show that externally funded R&D accounted for 24% of BERD in Canada (for 2021) and 51% in the United Kingdom (for 2020) (CSA, 2023[3]; know.space, 2023[8]).

Trade in space products and services has traditionally been limited because of export regulations and objectives to maintain domestic knowhow and expertise (OECD, 2020[9]). Still, the most recent US space industrial base survey in 2010-13 (to be repeated in 2022-23) identified multiple high-level US government space programmes with international suppliers (US Department of Commerce, 2013[10]). For instance, the Japanese H-IIA and US Delta IV launchers share the same second-stage propellant tank configuration (OECD, 2014[11]) and two US launchers (Atlas V and Antares) use Russian-built engines. The European Space Agency also used the Russian medium-class Soyuz launcher between 2011 and 2022, e.g. for launching Copernicus and Galileo satellites.

From a structural point of view, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) constitute the bulk of commercial actors in the space sector (e.g. some 94% in Canada, 92% in Korea) (OECD, 2020[9]), but bigger actors account for most of employment and revenues. In 2020, the ten largest space manufacturers in Europe accounted for 85% of revenues (ASD-Eurospace, 2021[12]). In Canada (also comprising other space activities such as satellite operations), the ten largest actors accounted for 84% of revenues in 2019 (CSA, 2021[13]).

The combination of these elements provides a heterogeneous defence against the succession of economic crises since 2019. On the one hand, government contracts provide a stable source of revenue in times of crisis. One could even note that certain space industry segments benefit from the current geopolitical climate with high counter-cyclical defence expenditure On the other hand, there are growing concerns about medium and long-term access to private as well as public sources of funding, as the projected economic slowdown in 2023, high inflation and rising debt service burdens could negatively affect public R&D budgets (OECD, 2023[14]). For instance, future US Department of Defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining in real terms (Butow et al., 2020[15]).

There is a risk that these could eliminate smaller and younger firms that are key sources of innovation, employment and economic growth (OECD, 2020[9]), as well as structural diversification and resilience. During the COVID-19 crisis, a German survey specifically targeting space start-ups revealed that almost 40% of respondents described the impacts of COVID-19 as “dramatic” and threatening the very existence of their firm (BDI, 2020[16]).

As noted in Chapter 1 and the previous section, different segments of the space sector have very different characteristics. For example, what marks out the so-called "upstream" segment is not only the dominance of manufacturing and launch services and its low rate of annual outputs but also its high R&D intensity and heavy reliance on government funding. That sets it well apart from the downstream segment which, while also strong in manufacturing (e.g. components and devices such as set-top boxes for satellite TV, and receivers for satellite navigation), shares none of the other features that characterise the upstream segment. Such fundamental differences have important implications for employment, skills and recruitment.

Figure 4.1 shows recent trends in space manufacturing employment (including launch activities) in selected OECD countries and regions. Notable increases over the last decade can be found in Europe and Korea and can be linked to increased government funding, e.g. Galileo and Copernicus in Europe, and significant budget increases in Korea (see Chapter 1). More recently, European employment has been further boosted by smaller entrants to the sector backed by equity funding (Eurospace, 2022[5]). This could potentially also explain some of the recent growth in US employment.

Employment in other space industry segments has traditionally been more challenging to identify and track, for several reasons (e.g. the “space” component is often less clearly defined, limited or has no relationship with government agencies or industry associations) but more data are becoming available. Canada, the United Kingdom and Korea all monitor employment in the downstream segment, comprising space operations, the exploitation of satellite data and signals (e.g. satellite television) and associated equipment (e.g. GPS transmitters and chips). The size and nature of these activities vary significantly from country to country. As shown in Table 4.1, downstream activities accounted for 47% of employment in Canada and 53% in Korea in 2021 (mainly manufacturing of equipment for satellite broadcasting and navigation); and 67% in the United Kingdom in 2020 (mainly satellite television) (know.space, 2023[8]; Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2022[4]; CSA, 2023[3]). The European industry association for earth observation activities have estimated the overall workforce to amount to some 24 000 persons in 2020, in the private sector, government organisations and academia (EARSC, 2021[17]).

The space sector workforce tends to be highly educated. In the United Kingdom, 77% of space industry employees had a bachelor's degree or higher in 2020, while the equivalent share for Canada was 67% in 2021 (know.space, 2023[8]; CSA, 2023[3]). In the United Kingdom, this average level of qualifications (based on a limited survey sample) surpasses that of any sector covered by the UK Office for National Statistics labour statistics. According to the Eurospace survey for 2021, 67% of the upstream segment workforce has at least three years of university education (Eurospace, 2022[5]). The industry surveys that distinguish between upstream and downstream activities find a concentration of the highly educated in the upstream sector.

Research, science and engineering play an important role. In the Japanese space industry survey, which focuses mainly on upstream activities, “R&D occupations” comprise 44% of the space workforce (SJAC, 2023[6]), whereas the Canadian space industry survey finds that “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations represent some 86% of the upstream workforce and 62% of the total space workforce (covering engineers, scientists, technicians, management, health professionals and students) (CSA, 2023[3]). In the United Kingdom, the great majority of the space industry workforce has a scientific or engineering academic background, with aerospace and electrical engineering, physics and geography and environmental sciences as the most typical entryways reported by survey respondents (Dudley and Thiemann, 2023[18]).

The supply of skilled workers is a concern in many space-faring countries, as the space sector is expanding while facing strong competition from other high-technology sectors.

The availability of a skilled workforce depends on many factors. As for other high-technology sectors, the space sector faces strong structural challenges, such as STEM-related constraints and a notable gender gap in scientific and management occupations. The supply of university graduates in several space-related scientific disciplines (e.g. aerospace engineering), and STEM disciplines more generally, does not keep up with demand in several OECD countries.

OECD’s skill imbalance index (2022[19]) calculates skill surpluses and shortages. Figure 4.2 shows the results for skills that are important in space activities, notably several digital skills (programming, data processing), engineering and selected sciences (geography and physics). While subject to considerable national differences, the index shows small or severe shortages of engineering skills in about half of all OECD countries and a severe lack of geography skills in a majority of OECD countries. Some countries have a shortage of all the selected skills (e.g. Denmark, Finland, Norway).

Indeed, space Industry actors in several OECD countries report problems finding qualified staff.

The UK Space Agency’s space sector skills survey (Sant et al., 2021[20]). identifies several challenges, notably recruitment problems, skills gaps (particularly in scientific, engineering and/or technical functions) and difficulties retaining staff. In Canada, 61% of space organisations reported difficulties hiring personnel in the annual industry survey carried out by the Canadian Space Agency in 2021 (CSA, 2023[3]). In Australia, a 2021 gap analysis conducted by the SmartSat Co-Operative Research Centre (CRC) found that out of the 319 identified skills used in the Australian space industry, all but nine are experiencing some level of shortage, with 86 requiring particular attention (due to e.g. high immediate demand or insufficient training provider capacity), as shown in Figure 4.3 (SmartSat, 2021[21]).

There may also be administrative obstacles. For certain space activities in the United States, for instance, security clearance requirements may complicate or even obstruct the employment of international staff (US Department of Commerce, 2014[22]). In 2021, 22% of all enrolled graduate students and 62% of doctoral students in aerospace engineering in the United States were temporary visa holders (NCSES, 2023[23]), significantly reducing the pool of eligible candidates. More generally, the increase in the number of engineering and ICT graduates since 2014 in the United States is primarily driven by international students, mainly from the People’s Republic of China [hereafter ‘China’] (National Science Board, National Science Foundation, 2022[24]).

The ageing of the space-related workforce is an issue in some OECD countries, especially in the upstream segment. In the United States, the 2013 space industrial base deep dive assessment found that 36% of the space-related workforce was 50 years or older (US Department of Commerce, 2014[22]). The European space manufacturing workforce has a similar “top-heavy” age structure, according to the 2021 Eurospace space industry survey, with a majority of workers in the 49-58 age bracket (Eurospace, 2022[5]). In contrast, the 50+ age group accounted for less than 11% of space industry workers in Korea in 2019, as reported by the Ministry of Science and ICT’s latest space industry survey (2020[25])

There is a persistent gender gap in both space-related employment and space-related fields of education. Overall, women are under-represented in all segments of the space sector, from government sector administration and research to private sector manufacturing and services provision, irrespective of fields. However, there is variation across countries and space activity segments, with some positive signs emerging. Thanks to the considerable statistical efforts of several organisations, there is more granular evidence on this issue than ever before, allowing a more precise analysis of data and a more targeted response.

Figure 4.4 shows female employment in selected space agencies and research organisations in both OECD countries and partner economies. Agencies with higher administrative and project management roles tend to have a higher share of women (e.g. space agencies in Australia, Norway and the United Kingdom).

The share tends to be lower in bigger agencies that also carry out science and engineering activities. Whereas the female shares of total staff at the Canadian Space Agency, the Centre National d‘Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) account for 45%, 39%, and 36%, respectively, this drops to 25% for “non-administrative or clerical occupations” (e.g scientists and engineers) (CSA, 2021[26]; CNES, 2022[27]; NASA, 2023[28]). As shown in Table 4.2, the South African National Space Agency is an exception, with a higher female share in skilled technical workers (49%) than in total staff (SANSA, 2022[29]). Female employment in space-related Korean government research institutes is generally very low (14% in 2021), but women account for 35% of the under-30 (Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2022[4]). However, it is too early to tell if this is a durable trend reflecting real gender advances, or if the share decreases as women age and take on more family responsibilities.

Women are also under-represented in the private sector, particularly in the upstream segment of space manufacturing and launch. Women accounted for roughly 23% of employment in the upstream segment in Europe in 2021 (Eurospace, 2022[5]), a share that has remained stable over the last decade, and 34% of aerospace manufacturing in the United States (compared to 19.5% in 2017) (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023[30]). In Canada, Korea and the United Kingdom, where industry surveys cover both upstream and downstream activities, women represented 29%,15% (in 2021) and 24% (in 2020), respectively, of the space industry workforce (Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2022[4]; CSA, 2023[3]; know.space, 2023[8]). In Australia and the United Kingdom, women represented 20% of the total space research industry in 2020 (Australia’s Chief Scientist, 2021[31]). When looking at female representation by age cohorts, women generally account for a larger share of the younger workforce (e.g. in Korea they represent 28% of employees younger than 30, compared to 15% of the total).

The three countries also provide data on female employment in specific fields (e.g. earth observation, space exploration) and along the value chain (e.g. research and engineering, space manufacturing, space operations) showing a strong under-representation of women in some of the most specialised engineering activities (space launch, satellite operations, instrument manufacturing) and fields (space exploration), with relatively more women (unsurprisingly) employed in education and administration, as well as science.

More granular data from Korea looking at the gender distribution of the space industry by educational background shows that women accounted for only 7% of employed majors from departments related to mechanical/material engineering, 20% of majors from natural science-related departments and 37% of majors from “non-related” departments (Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2022[4]).

These employment patterns are reflected in women’s educational choices. Figure 4.5 shows the share of female graduate students in space-related science and engineering fields in the United States, one of the very few countries to regularly collect granular statistics by field and gender. The 2021 data show how women account for more than half of all graduate students in geosciences, atmospheric sciences and ocean sciences but continue to be under-represented in computer and information sciences and especially in aerospace engineering (and engineering more generally (NCSES, 2023[23]). Still, the trend is positive – the share of women graduate students in aerospace engineering has grown from 14% in 2010 to almost 19% in 2021.

The Korean space survey tracks graduation trends of students in dedicated “space” fields and departments (comprising aerospace engineering, space science and astronomy) and of students involved in space-related research in departments such as physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, etc. In 2021, women accounted for 21% of space department graduates and 39% of “space-related” graduates, compared to 18% and 33% respectively, in 2019 (Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, 2020[25]; 2022[4]).

Public and private responses typically include educator resources and training, outreach and awareness-raising events at primary, secondary and higher education levels, scholarships, conditional grants and workplace initiatives (see OECD (2019[32]) for examples). There is finally more available data on the potential effects of these policies, some of which have been running for decades, as well as possible existing barriers to success.

A comprehensive UK survey sheds light on workplace discrimination (Space Skills Alliance, 2021[33]). The 2020 Space Census on the UK space workforce reports that only 47% of female respondents feel “always” welcome in the sector, compared to 79% of male respondents. This is especially true for those employed in academia and in small and micro-sized firms. From a race/ethnicity standpoint, only 38% of female respondents and 44% of male respondents of colour feel “always welcome”.

The UK survey furthermore provides important pointers on what motivates women to enter the space sector, as shown in Figure 4.6 (Dudley and Thiemann, 2023[18]). Gender differences are quite small, but female respondents are more likely to be inspired at school or by a teacher or at a space camp (7% versus 3%) and male respondents are more likely to be inspired by the internet (13% versus 19%). According to survey respondents, the impact of public and private outreach events (e.g. industry days, space camps) is relatively limited.

As highlighted in the previous paragraphs, existing statistics show a persistent gender gap in the space sector for science and engineering activities and occupations, but one that varies significantly between countries, and across different types of organisations and technical fields. Also, there are several positive signs when it comes to the share of female employment as well as graduates in space-related fields, including in engineering. As the space sector evolves, with increasing commercialisation and digitalisation of activities, more and more granular data are needed to adequately track the participation and experiences of women in the space sector as well as the outcomes and effectiveness of policies targeting gender imbalances.

As described in previous chapters of this book, the importance of space infrastructure and space activities more generally is growing. The commercialisation and diversification of space assets have contributed to making services more distributed and resilient, but the remote location of space infrastructure components and the high costs of launch make it difficult to protect them from human-made and natural threats (e.g. space debris).

Space infrastructure is exposed to multiple natural threats in the space environment, which are not affected by human activity (NASA, 2015[34]). These include the hard vacuum of space, ultraviolet and particulate radiation, charged plasma and extreme temperature fluctuations, all of which can damage and erode surfaces and components and cause system malfunctions. Furthermore, meteoroids, small and solid particles created by asteroid collisions and decayed comets, can hit spacecraft at exceptional speed (sometimes 60km per second (km/s), compared to space debris’ average velocity of 10km/s).

Space weather probably poses the greatest natural threat to space infrastructure. Lower-level space weather-related incidents are relatively frequent, mainly affecting space-based infrastructure (e.g. signal disruptions and other anomalies, although a systematic mapping of incidents is not available) and occasionally systems on Earth, which are normally protected by the Earth’s magnetic field. In 2006, a solar flare disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) signals for some ten minutes (Cerruti et al., 2008[35]). And more recently in 2022, a coronal mass ejection and the accompanying increase in atmospheric temperature and density caused the first recorded mass satellite failure as it deorbited 40 out of 49 recently launched Starlink satellites, belonging to US operator SpaceX (SpaceX, 2022[36]).

Major events are much rarer, but there is limited knowledge about their frequency since recording only started with the electrification of society in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, one of the largest geomagnetic storms ever recorded occurred in 1859, disabling telegraph systems in North America and Europe and producing auroras visible in Hawaii and Queensland, Australia, but it had otherwise limited impact. A coronal mass ejection of similar magnitude missed the Earth by a week in 2012 (NASA, 2014[37]). The most severe incident in modern times occurred in Canada in 1989 and disabled Hydro Québec’s electrical grid. This left 6 million people without electricity for nine hours (OECD, 2020[9]).

Space weather services in several OECD countries provide short- and medium-term space weather forecasts, allowing operators to put exposed infrastructure in safe mode when possible. However, forecasting ability is limited. There is a 6-8 hour forecast accuracy for coronal mass ejections (which transit relatively slowly through space) but definitive forecasts determining the direction of their magnetic field lie in the range of 15-30 minutes – and solar flares and solar particle ejections, which travel with the speed of light, cannot be forecasted at all (RAE, 2013[38]).

Space-based systems are designed to resist the multiple stresses of launch as well as the extreme natural conditions of the space environment, and are, to a significantly lesser extent, shielded against minor collisions with debris. However, they are generally less protected against malicious acts. Civilian spacecraft follow predictable, publicly available, orbital paths and can be destroyed or blinded by physical anti-satellite weapons (Froehlich, 2021[39]). Several economies have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities in recent years, including China, India, the United States, and most recently, the Russian Federation.

Furthermore, electronic attacks such as jamming and spoofing can interfere with the signals to and from a satellite, and in this way disrupt operations or send fake signals. Finally, ground systems, satellites or end-user equipment can all be the targets of cyberattacks (Harrison et al., 2021[40]). In the United States, the 2020 Space Policy Directive 5 (SPD-5) highlights this threat and outlines cybersecurity principles for space systems.

In the war in Ukraine, space infrastructure has been exposed to both electronic attacks and cyberattacks (Werner, 2022[41]; Foust and Berger, 2022[42]). Jamming attacks have targeted GPS signals as well as commercial SpaceX terminals for satellite broadband (which have mostly proven resilient). More significantly, a suspected cyberattack targeting Viasat’s KA-SAT fixed broadband network led to widespread network outages in Central and Eastern Europe on the day of the invasion, as the attack knocked out thousands of modems communicating with the geostationary satellite. The incident is currently under investigation and is particularly sensitive because Viasat is a contractor for many defence actors (Pearson et al., 2022[43]).

Ensuring the resilience of space infrastructure has become strategically important in recent years for many countries. France and the United Kingdom have recently published military space strategies. The United States established the Space Force as a new branch of armed services in 2019. More regions and countries are building space tracking abilities (e.g., the European Space Surveillance and Tracking EUSST) network).

Space debris poses the biggest threat to space infrastructure and the volume of tracked debris objects has increased significantly in the last two decades. Figure 4.7 shows the evolution of space objects catalogued by the US Space Force, including operational and defunct spacecraft, fragmentation and mission-related debris. In March 2022, the US Space Force tracked more than 25 000 identifiable debris objects mainly with a 10 cm diameter or bigger (gradually phasing in smaller objects thanks to a new ground radar) (NASA, 2022[44]). The total untracked number of debris probably counts in the hundreds of millions (ESA, 2021[45]).

Space debris includes operational and defunct spacecraft, fragmentation debris from collisions and in-orbit explosions (e.g. of rocket fuel tanks), mission-related debris such as objects intentionally released during deployment and operations (e.g. lens caps), and various stages of rocket bodies. Rocket bodies account for only around 10% of tracked objects, but almost 40% of mass (ESA, 2019[46]). Lower altitude orbital debris objects decay as they are pulled to Earth by atmospheric drag and other natural processes and destroyed when entering the atmosphere. Decay timelines can be counted in days (orbits closest to Earth), in years (in orbits less than 600 km), or in centuries (more than 1 000 km). In the geostationary orbit, debris remains in orbit unless they are moved to dedicated “graveyard” orbits. Debris belts are mainly located in the low-earth orbit, between 800 and 1 000 km, but also at an altitude of almost 1 400 km. There are additional concentrations of space debris close to the orbits of the existing navigation satellite constellations (19 000-23 000 km), and the geostationary orbit (35 785km)

The operational life of a satellite varies quite significantly according to its orbit and is linked to the cost of launching it and keeping it in place in its orbital slot. Satellites located in the geostationary orbits have traditionally been built for some 15-20 years of operations, while satellites in the lower earth orbits may remain operational for only a couple of years. From a regulatory standpoint, payloads are supposed to clear their orbits at the latest 25 years after the end of operations (IADC, 2007[47]). This means that Earth’s orbits are occupied by satellites in various stages of their operational lives, by non-operational satellites in the process of clearing their orbit, as well as different categories of debris.

The accumulation of space debris constitutes a major threat to space-based infrastructure and could have severe socio-economic consequences (OECD, 2022[49]). In a worst-case scenario, debris objects reach unsustainable levels of concentration that trigger an irreversible chain reaction of in-orbit collisions, the so-called Kessler Syndrome (Kessler and Cour-Palais, 1978[50]), which may render certain orbits unusable. If or when this could happen remains unknown, but there is a theoretical possibility that it could occur within the next few decades (National Research Council, 2011[51]). Vittori et al. (2022[52]) estimates the monetary losses in the case of Kessler Syndrome to some USD 191.3 billion,

The orbits most likely to be disrupted by the Kessler Syndrome are those with the thickest existing debris belts and are located at 650-1 000 km and ~1 400 km altitudes. These orbits are used by many of the weather and earth observation satellites described in Chapter 2, which make unique contributions to weather forecasting and climate change observations and research. Furthermore, communications satellites in orbits above the debris belts would be affected during orbit-raising.

National and international efforts that address this problem include international guidelines on sustainable conduct (UN COPUOS, 2018[53]) and debris mitigation (IADC, 2007[47]); increasingly advanced monitoring systems, government and industry efforts to improve data sharing and space traffic management; active debris removal, etc., but they face considerable legal, economic and technological hurdles including the inability to enforce legal frameworks and attribute actions and debris to specific operators. Although the trend is positive, operator compliance with orbit clearance guidelines for satellites in orbits above 650 km, which requires active deorbit systems and adds costs and complexity to the mission, remains at a low and unsustainable level, as shown in Figure 4.8 (ESA, 2022[54]).

The figure shows the levels of compliance of satellites in orbits above 650km altitude that has been cleared or that should have been cleared (i.e. that they have remained in orbit 25 years beyond the end of their mission). The higher compliance in recent years is associated with the good performance of mega-constellation operators (e.g. SpaceX).

When sunlight is reflected on satellite bodies and orbital debris, it increases the brightness of the night sky, which may have serious implications for different types of astronomical observations, as it lowers the contrast between astronomical objects and their foreground and increases the risk of bright satellite “streaks” in frames. Kocifaj et al. estimate that the combined body of existing satellites and debris already increases the brightness of the night sky by at least 10%, which qualifies it as “light polluted” and exceeds the threshold of acceptable light pollution (or artificial brightness) at astronomical observatory sites (Kocifaj et al., 2021[55]). As discussed previously, the number of satellites in orbit is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, so this problem is only in its early stages.

Since the launch of the first satellites for broadband mega-constellations in 2019, the science community has identified several potential impacts of the high orbital density of satellites on astronomical observations depending on satellites’ orbits and design; the timing of the observation; and the type of telescopic astronomic observation and length of exposure (Hainaut and Williams, 2020[56]).

  • The higher the orbit of the satellite (above 600km altitude), the longer they are visible during the night (in summer, all night in some cases). In 2023, at least four mega-constellation projects in different stages of development were planning to use orbits at this altitude or higher. The UK constellation OneWeb intends to place all its 600+ satellites at 1 200 km altitude).

  • The periods of the day with the highest risk of satellite-induced light pollution are when the sun is 18 degrees or farther below the horizon (latest hours of the astronomical night), or 12-18 degrees below the horizon (astronomical twilights). Certain research programmes specifically require twilight observations, such as searches for potentially Earth-threatening asteroids and comets, outer solar system objects, and visible-light counterparts of fleeting gravitational-wave sources (AAS, 2020[57]).

  • Observations using a large field of view and long exposure times could be considerably affected. For instance, simulations for the USD 500 million Vera C. Rubin Observatory currently under construction in Chile and the top-ranked large ground-based astronomy project in the US 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics decadal survey, indicate that some 30-40% of exposures during the first and last hours of the night could be compromised (Hainaut and Williams, 2020[56]). Images on a test version of the camera show very bright and wide satellite trails, covering several pixels (Clery, 2020[58]).

  • Modelling shows that the effects of satellite-generated light pollution will be unequally geographically distributed, with 50°north and south latitudes experiencing some of the worst effects of light pollution. This would for instance affect the populations and multiple observation facilities in North America and Europe (Lawler, Boley and Rein, 2021[59])

This issue is not only a problem for terrestrial observatories. Kruk et al. (2023[60]) show that space-based observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope are also affected.

The massive growth in satellites in orbit could also negatively affect radio astronomy observations. Radio astronomy observes the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (see Box 3.1 in Chapter 3) that is emitted by celestial objects such as neutron stars, planets, gas clouds, galaxies, etc. While generally less known than optical astronomy, radio astronomy observations have contributed to four Nobel prizes in physics between 1974 and 2020, including one for the discovery of the Big Bang in 1978 (IAU, 2021[61]). Radio astronomy also contributes to early warning systems by monitoring solar radio flares, measuring Earth’s plate tectonics and providing crucial positioning inputs to global navigation satellite systems (NTIA, 2021[62]).

Observed wavelengths in radio astronomy typically range from millimetres to several metres. The International Telecommunications Union has allocated 21 bands exclusively to passive science services (also including passive remote sensing), but most frequencies are shared with other services (IAU, 2021[61]). Notable observatories include the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) comprising 66 radio telescopes in Chile; the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China and the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) project under development in Australia and South Africa, which connects arrays of 131 000 and 197 dish antennas, respectively (SKAO, 2023[63]).

Radio astronomy is particularly vulnerable to interference from other users of the electromagnetic spectrum because measurements are extremely sensitive as signals are very weak, often involving large receiver bandwidths and integration and correlation of signals over hours or days (ITU, 2001[64]). Interference in “protected” bands can occur if transmitters using frequencies in adjacent frequency bands spill over into neighbouring frequencies (NRAO, 2023[65]). Alternatively, transmitters emit outside their intended range. For example, continued interference from the constellation of US satellite mobile phone operator Iridium has made it impossible to observe hydroxide (OH) molecules in the envelopes of evolved stars using the protected radio astronomy band at 1610.6-1613.8 megahertz for the last 22 years, although the satellite constellation is to be allowed to operate only above 1617.8 megahertz (IAU, 2021[61]).

To avoid interference in shared bands, radio observatories are sometimes located in “radio quiet zones”, where certain activities (e.g. air traffic) or the use of specific devices (e.g. cellular phones, in some cases even microwave ovens) are restricted. However, satellites (and other airborne systems) can cause interference even with hundreds or thousands of kilometres of separation (NTIA, 1998[66]). Whereas it is relatively easy to mitigate interference from geostationary satellites (low count of visible satellites all using the same frequencies in a well-defined orbit), the increased use of the low-earth orbit is much more problematic, with multiple, and in the future perhaps hundreds or thousands, satellites above the horizon simultaneously. A special concern is main beam illuminations, especially from radar and other high-power applications capable of burning out radio astronomy receivers (IAU, 2021[61]).

Space activities generate multiple negative environmental effects on Earth and in the atmosphere, including stratospheric ozone depletion, air acidification, smog, toxic waste spills, water pollution, noise pollution, water consumption, and various types of material demands which can contribute to resource depletion (Miraux, Wilson and Dominguez Calabuig, 2022[67]).

There is growing awareness within the sector to reduce its environmental footprint. For instance, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its Clean Space initiative in 2009, focusing among other things on “eco-design”, looking at the effects on the atmosphere, and environmental regulations and performing full mission lifecycle assessments, creating a lifecycle assessment database in the process as well as guidelines for carrying out lifecycle assessments (ESA, 2023[68]).

However, Identifying and assessing the full environmental impacts on Earth and in the atmosphere is challenging, because of a lack of observational data and, a lack of comparability with other sectors (due to the unique characteristics of space activities such as low production rates, long development cycles, specialised materials and industrial processes) and limited access to industry data (e.g. on satellite composition) (Wilson et al., 2022[69]; Miraux, Wilson and Dominguez Calabuig, 2022[67]; GAO, 2022[70]).

Despite these caveats, there is a growing body of evidence providing insights into the most polluting phases of space activities, now and in the future, with researchers assessing the environmental effects of space launch, the carbon footprint of specific facilities, or even the full lifecycle impacts of space activities.

  • The US Government Accountability Office (2022[70]) summarises multiple studies on the atmospheric effects of rocket launches and satellite re-entries, with different types of rocket propellant producing carbon dioxide, water vapour, black carbon, aluminium oxide, chlorine chemicals and nitrogen oxides; and satellites emitting aluminium, nickel, titanium, iron, silicon, etc., as well as potentially toxic and radioactive metals (depending on satellites’ composition) as they burn up on entering Earth’s atmosphere. However, estimates tend to heavily rely on assumptions because of the data caveats mentioned above, in particular the lack of observational data and data on space vehicle composition.

  • Maury et al. (2020[71]) review the literature on lifecycle assessments and identify environmental “hotspots” in complete space missions. The launcher represents 99% of space mission mass and 50-70% of the global warming potential; control centres and ground stations account for most of the energy consumption for operations and 50% of toxicity/ecotoxicity potentials; the propellant-burning launch event covers nearly 100% of the potential for ozone depletion; and the production of solar cells for photovoltaic systems accounts for practically all the potential for mineral resource depletion.

  • Available scientific evidence suggests that the composition of rocket fuel could change its environmental footprint, with hydrogen fuels (emitting mostly water vapour) being less harmful than kerosene-, hypergolic-, solid- (and eventually methane)-based fuels (The Aerospace Corporation, 2022[72])

  • Focusing specifically on carbon emissions, Knödlseder et al. (2022[73]) uses economic input-output analysis to estimate the footprint of astronomical research and finds that the combined lifecycle impact of ground- and space-based astronomical research infrastructures (excluding travel, supercomputing and office heating) accounts for the largest share of overall emissions and is comparable to the annual emissions of a small European country (Greenfieldboyce, 2022[74]). It is worth noting that the methodological input-output approach, used specifically to circumvent the aforementioned data gaps, is associated with large uncertainties (80%) due to the large variations in activity, products and monetary flows from one facility or field of activity to another (Knödlseder et al., 2022[73]; Wilson, 2022[1]). In any case, the authors make a strong case for greater transparency on the carbon intensity of the space sector.

  • Finally, Miraux, Wilson and Dominguez-Calabuig (2022[67]) estimate the full environmental lifecycle impact of both existing and potential space activities up until 2050. The 2021 baseline scenario (excluding mega-constellations) indicates a low overall impact except for ozone depletion, where the estimated impact represents 0.4% of the accumulated impact from all anthropogenic activities over a year. However, both the moderate and high growth scenarios foresee significant future impacts on several aspects of atmospheric pollution (air acidification, ozone depletion, photochemical oxidation) as well as notable contributions to global warming (climate change), as shown in Table 4.3.

This chapter has treated several topics that require government attention, most notably the issue of space debris. While not a recent concern, solutions to the problem are technically and geopolitically challenging and costly (more information on policy responses and recent initiatives such as active debris removal and environmental certification schemes can be found in OECD (2022[49]) and Undseth, Jolly and Olivari (2020[75])). As with all other policy challenges mentioned in this book, greater involvement from private actors, international consensus-building, and improved data collection and sharing will be required.

  • There are some positive signs of stakeholder collaboration to address the negative externalities of space activities. Several satellite operators work along with the science community to mitigate light pollution and radio interference. For instance, the US National Science Foundation and satellite operator SpaceX have an astronomy coordination agreement concerning both optical and radio astronomy (NSF, 2023[76]). This includes operator efforts to follow science community recommendations on satellite and constellation design to reduce light pollution; publish orbital paths to facilitate the scheduling of observations; ensure continued protection of protected frequency bands; co-ordinate with radio astronomy facilities to avoid main beam illuminations during observations at key facilities; conduct field tests to assess interference levels, etc. (NSF, 2023[76]).

  • Considering the need for more transparency and data, several space agencies make important efforts to monitor and report on the environmental performance of their facilities, which play an important role in the lifecycle not only of agency missions but also in that of many other space organisations that also access these facilities for product development and testing (OECD, 2016[77]; Olivari, Jolly and Undseth, 2021[78]). The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and NASA regularly publish the environmental performance of their respective facilities and ESA intends to reduce its facilities’ consumption of electricity, gas and fuel by 46% by 2030, with a 100% shift to renewable energy (ESA, 2022[79]). This is part of ESA’s “Green Agenda”, intended to reduce the agency’s environmental footprint overall and foster its contribution to the sustainable development of society. In its annual space industry survey, the UK Space Agency has introduced questions on industry carbon emissions, with 31% of survey respondents monitoring emissions (know.space, 2023[8]).

The vulnerability of space-based infrastructure also needs to be taken seriously, particularly when seen against the backdrop of mounting geopolitical tensions, also in the space environment. Many potential space-based military targets are dual use, including several navigation satellite constellations such as the US Global Positioning System, as well as certain commercial products and services heavily used by military customers. One example is Ukrainian military forces’ reliance on commercial satellite broadband, but it also applies to earth observation satellites. As noted in previous chapters of this book, similar earth observation imagery can be used for environmental monitoring, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. OECD provides several relevant resources to support work on critical infrastructure resilience and digital security, such as the Recommendation of the Council on Digital Security of Critical Activities (OECD, 2019[80]) and the OECD Policy Toolkit on Governance of Critical Infrastructure Resilience (OECD, 2019[81]).

The potential negative impacts of major space weather events are increasingly recognised in OECD countries (see for instance, (RAE, 2013[38]; PwC, 2016[82]) and several countries are improving their response systems and strategies. The US federal government identified space weather as one of the grand challenges for disaster risk reduction in its 2015 Space Weather Strategy (US National Science and Technology Council, 2015[83]) and the UK government issued a Severe Space Weather Preparedness Strategy in 2021 to increase the country’s preparedness and resilience (BEIS, 2021[84]). However, there is a considerable need for more evidence both on the occurrence and recurrence of events as well as recorded impacts.


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