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The new space race needs to be built on sustainability, say experts

22 June 2022

Researchers at the University of Manchester are calling on UK policymakers to establish a more sustainable approach to space exploration.

Based on leading research and expertise on innovative and emerging technologies, experts are calling for sustainability to be at the forefront of humanity’s next phase of space exploration. 

In The University of Manchester’s new publication, On Space, experts ask policymakers to consider space debris, satellite orbits and the investment needed to roll out sustainable space technology on Earth.

Many technologies used to counter climate change, including solar panels, started out as space-age innovations. Future innovations in space technology could be used to further reduce carbon emissions here on Earth.

Dr Aled Roberts explains one of the biggest challenges for off-world habitat construction is the transportation of building materials, which can cost upwards of £1m per brick. A solution could be that ‘local’ resources, such as Lunar or Martian soil, are used to make building materials. AstroCrete, researched at The University of Manchester, is a material is made from bio-based materials and the local planetary soil to make sturdy bricks that can be used to build space habitats.

On the use of this technology on Earth, Aled said: “Given that the construction sector accounts for 39% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, any relatively green construction material technology developed for off-world habitats could be employed as a sustainable alternative on Earth.”

Researchers also stress the need to take care of space, particularly around the Earth’s orbit. Of the 23,000 objects regularly being tracked in orbit by radar, around 15% are active satellites, the rest is space debris.

As more commercial satellites are launched, such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite cluster, the potential for space debris increases.

Dr Peter Roberts argues that one way to combat the problem of space debris is to coordinate International space policymakers to agree to prioritise the use of Very Low Earth Orbits (VELO) for commercial operations to lessen humanity’s impact on the space environment. Higher level orbits should be reserved for science, crewed activities, and space exploration.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “It is exciting to contemplate the future of the UK space sector, our use of space for the good of our planet, and its robotic and human exploration more widely. The ‘space age’ is still relatively young – just 60 years – but it is clear that our future and that of our planet will be reliant on space technology and the application of space-enabled data.”

As well as sustainability, On Space advocates for the use of advanced materials, such as graphene, in UK space technology, support for research and development into emerging space technologies in the UK and prioritising international collaborations in UK and international space policy.

On Space is available to read on Policy@Manchester’s website.

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