This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Today, there are nearly 2,000 active satellites orbiting the Earth, and there are proposals to launch 20,000 more in the near future. While these unprecedented numbers of satellites bring with them important benefits to humanity, we must be careful to proceed responsibly and minimize the potential for harming the low Earth orbit (LEO) environment for generations to come.
Space-based global communications, remote sensing, and a host of novel services promise new opportunities for economic development, global education, rural health care, location-based services and advancements in environmental science. Rapidly declining costs for access to space are paving the way for many new players, large and small, to play a role in providing these valuable solutions and services.
Because of these rapid developments, satellite design and operational practices must be approached with a firm eye toward longterm sustainability. This is particularly true for those seeking to launch satellites into the LEO environment, which extends up to an altitude of 2,000 kilometers.
Environmental protections must be updated. NASA drafted the first debris mitigation standards in 1995, and publications were subsequently issued by other expert organizations, such as the Inter-Agency Space ...