Work advances on Space Sustainability Rating

By Jeff Foust

ARLINGTON, Va. — A consortium established last year to develop a rating to measure how well satellites comply with space sustainability guidelines expects to have an initial version of its rating system ready by late this year or early next year.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) announced in May 2019 it selected a group that included the European Space Agency, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin and Bryce Space and Technology to develop a “Space Sustainability Rating” system that will score satellites based on how well they ensure the long-term sustainability of space.

The rating is intended to be “a positive incentive so that satellite operators have a desire to increase their responsible behavior, not through law or economics, but through social and peer pressure,” said Danielle Wood, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, during a Jan. 15 presentation about the project at the Second International Academy of Astronautics Conference on Space Situational Awareness here.

Since the announcement of the rating system, Wood and the other members of the team have been working on both the parameters that will go into the rating and how they will be weighted. Those potential parameters, she said, include a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures, ranging from each satellite’s design to the economic viability of the satellite operator, a concern if the satellite might outlive the company that launched it.

The team is now narrowing down the parameters it plans to include. The rating, she said, will likely include the satellite’s physical parameters and its “concept of operations” for avoiding potential collisions and disposing of the satellite at the end of its life, as well as how trackable the satellite is and its operator’s compliance with international standards and processes.

Wood said European members of the team have been working on ways to model the space environment and calculate a “mission index” for a satellite that estimates the probability of a collision for that satellite given the debris environment in that orbit and its effects. That will likely be one of the factors in the final rating.

The ultimate rating, she said, will be a single number between zero and one. One challenge facing the team is how to weight the various factors, with sensitivity analyses planned to understand how changes in each factor affect the overall score. She later said she expected to have an initial version of the rating ready by late this year or early 2021, depending on the progress the team makes in the coming months and the input it gets from various public events and other meetings about the rating.

Once the rating is completed, an independent organization of some kind would be responsible for maintaining it, including calculating ratings for individual satellites. “We do think it’s important to have an organization run the rating for several reasons,” Wood said, from helping satellite operators identify factors that can improve their ratings to having a transparent rating process. The current team working on developing the rating will help maintain it initially, she said, then either transfer it to an existing organization or create a new one to administer it.

One issue that came up when the WEF announced the Space Sustainability Rating was what incentives operators would have to seek to improve their ratings or obtain one in the first place. At a panel discussion about the rating system at the Satellite 2019 conference last year, one insurer was doubtful that it could provide discounts to participants in the rating system, at least initially.

Wood said any such incentives will be handled by organizations or government agencies, not the group developing the rating system. “We want to offer a standard, and then we’d love to coordinate with any government that wanted to apply that in their own regulations,” she said.

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