We are developing the first ever sustainability guidelines, metrics and tools to quantify the sustainability of space activities, from launch to mining and exploration.
As we are in the midst of a commercial space race and on the verge of a space resource bonanza, we can use the lessons learned from the impacts our industrialized society and apply them to space activities. Such lessons have manifested the relatively new yet well vetted field of sustainability engineering, to help engineer indefinite sustained social, economic, and environmental wellbeing to all using various quantitative life-cycle assessment methodologies. Such sustainability assessments regularly provide findings that improve overall system performance while reducing negative impacts and unanticipated consequences. For example, the combined economic and environmental benefits achieved by SpaceX through developing the reusable booster system of the Falcon Heavy rocket launch orbital transportation system. By applying the simple sustainability principal of reuse, SpaceX was able to reduce the cost of launch to high orbit by over $6,000 per kilogram while reducing environmental impact potential averages by >40% over the Falcon 9 system!
Risks Avoided, Opportunities Exploited
Sustainability engineering provides the opportunity to envision and design systems that potentially cause less environmental impact and are more economically and socially beneficial. There are a variety risks from not conducting such analyses of new and evolving systems such as space technologies. An example includes unmanaged depletion of resources that could have otherwise been used in a more sustainable fashion (e.g. the relatively rapid depletion of fossil resources since the Industrial Revolution, and Earth’s orbital real estate now littered with space debris). Another risk is the degradation of new surroundings and resource bases to the point of futility—without thorough life-cycle sustainability assessments, new activities could render the resources and environments unusable and an hinderance over the long-term (e.g. the Hanford Site, brownfields, &c). Furthermore, in not conducting life-cycle sustainability assessments we are more likely to incur unintended consequences and therefore fail to make proper adjustments in our systems to avoid or engineer ahead for such consequences. For example in lunar mining operations it is possible that an atmosphere may be created on the moon as a result of the outgassing from mining equipment and activities; sustainability engineering methods would quantify the inputs and outputs of such an impact to engineer systems accordingly in advance.
Quantitative Sustainability Assessment Tools for Space Activities
We propose to develop a suite of sustainability tools for use in space. These tools would quantify impacts for the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economics, and society.
We propose to adapt the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA, ISO 14040:2006) framework for space applications. Similarly, we can use economic input-output analysis and technoeconomic analysis (TEA) to evaluate socio-economic impacts of space products, processes, and activities.
These tools will enable the sustainability analysis of any space activity. When employed during the design and planning stage of a project, sustainability analysis can result in improvements to efficiency and cost while helping to identify costly unintended consequences. When conducted on existing technologies, sustainability assessments result in process improvements and can aid in managing a sustainable and cost-effective supply chain.
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