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A more sustainable race for space

New standards to ensure a safer infrastructure that the world depends on

Satellites are essential to the communication networks that connect our world – the infrastructure of space has become essential to our global economy.

Lloyd’s is a leader in the field of space risk, with almost a third of the market’s insurers writing either as individual syndicates or by syndicates pooling their capacity in consortias. As it becomes ever easier to access space, emerging issues of sustainability and responsibility are requiring the market to collaborate not just on sharing risk, but on finding different solutions. David Wade, Space Underwriter at Atrium, is playing a pivotal role in ensuring a more responsible approach in the race to launch new satellites, being involved in the development of the ESSI Space Sustainability Standard, designed to ensure the sustainability of space exploration and development. He explains how a life-long interest in this uniquely challenging environment means he brings more than deep professional expertise to the table.

“When I saw the first photographs from the surface of Mars as a seven year old lad, taken by the Viking spacecraft, I knew I’d found my passion. If you’d told me then, or even at university studying space engineering, that my journey would lead to Lloyd’s, as an underwriter for Atrium, I’d have laughed. But when I started work in the insurance sector as an expert ‘translator’ for the Marham Space Consortium, acting as a bridge between engineers and insurance underwriters, I saw the connection. That journey has been endlessly fascinating and the new focus on sustainability is a new chapter.

We’re taking action because our near earth environment is becoming crowded: more than 8,000 satellites are orbiting the Earth, tens of thousands more will be launched in the next 10 years. The race for 5G connectivity and profits means the number of satellites being launched is growing at a faster rate than ever before. We’ve been launching satellites since 1957 but the number of active satellites in orbit has doubled within the last 24 months.

Space is a bit of a Wild West. There are some United Nations regulations governing behaviour in space, but only non-enforceable guidelines for de-orbiting satellites at the end of their life. In some cases satellites are abandoned and effectively become ‘space junk’ that can decompose and break up. There’s an estimated 32,140 items (that’s 10,100 tonnes) of debris orbiting Earth and when space debris is travelling at speeds of 7km per second that’s a ticking timebomb. In 2016 a fleck of paint from a satellite chipped a window of the International Space Station, larger fragments can rip through other satellites like a bullet.

A debris impact chip in an International Space Station window, image Tim Peak, ESA/NASA

A blizzard of space debris is threatening the space economy; from space flight, scientific missions, weather forecasting, climate studies, GPS and telecommunications networks, to name a few. Debris is not currently the biggest reason why spacecraft fail in orbit, but with a rapidly increasing number of satellites being launched and the environment becoming increasingly crowded, it is a growing risk, particularly for spacecraft operating in low earth orbit.

We must innovate to keep the space environment sustainable, so space insurers are comfortable accepting the risk, which maintains the flow of investment into companies that want to operate satellites. As a market we are collaborating with government and industry experts to produce the first-ever space sustainability standards to drive more responsibility towards the use of space. The goal is to encourage industry to safely de-orbit satellites; passivate them at the end of life, making them less likely to explode; and make better choices in materials less likely to deteriorate and shed. The standards are intended to encourage more responsible satellite programmes and sustainable supply chains; effectively a circular economy in space.”

“I wish I could tell that seven-year-old boy not to listen to his teachers when they said a career in space was impossible. This work is about redefining what’s possible every day.”