SPACE travel may be many things – it represents the pinnacle of human endeavour and the leading edge of science – but it’s not normally thought of as being at the cutting edge of sustainability.

The optics on this aren’t compelling: giant rockets using thunderous amounts of propellant to reach Earth orbit, for instance, and debris from China’s Long March 5B booster uncontrollably crashing from space into the sea earlier this month.

However, the space sector can and does make a contribution to the planet and the climate emergency, and its role in this is likely to grow in the future. A new campaign, The Sustainable Space Challenges, has been set up to explore and showcase the ability of the sector to support environmental efforts, with an online Summit planned in June that is open to the public.

It is run by the Scottish Space Leadership Council, a body of professionals across industry, academia and government that seek to enable and promote the Scottish space sector as part of the wider UK proposition. Despite being voluntary, the Council has a history of successful initiatives, having recently set up the UK Spaceport Alliance with participation from developing Scottish launch sites, as well as those in Cornwall and Llanbedr, and the New Voices in Space working group, which calls for greater diversity across the sector.

The Council also played a role in setting up the Space Academic Forum, which brings together Scotland’s universities to provide valuable input into the SSLC. Kristina Tamane, Space Business Development Executive at the University of Edinburgh, has been organising this work as part of the SSLC’s Environmental Task Force, along with space entrepreneur and Scottish Space Leadership Council Co-Chair, Daniel Smith.

“The idea behind the campaign was that we should engage with environmental groups, government, industrial partners and the universities to show how space can and should be sustainable”, she explains. “The idea was that we should take on challenges to enable the sector to be thinking more sustainably and to make sure that we were developing in a greener way.”

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Kristina points out that the popular perception of huge rockets blasting their way into the sky is not always correct – the UK private space sector is based around small launchers and highly miniaturised “cubesats”. And she adds that space does now make an active contribution to global sustainability.

“Satellites can look at things like precision agriculture, deforestation, climate change, disaster relief, and biodiversity management from space. The instruments they have onboard and the data generated can generate positive environmental impacts.

“There is also work going on across the sector to make the supply chains needed more sustainable, for example through greener rocket fuels and taking a mobile approach to launch. We are proactively working to explore ways for the sector to be more sustainable.”

With space debris a growing problem, it is important to protect outer space as well as the planet, she adds. “We need to start viewing near earth orbit as part of our environment, as we rely on so many services that come from space and must look after it.”

After receiving many submissions from schools to businesses to environmental groups, three challenges were grouped together by a judging panel. The first of these is to quantify, classify and assess how many humanmade objects are in space so the nature of the debris can be understood.

The second is to measure the direct and indirect impacts of the whole sector on the environment, while the third is to develop a digital library of space data to connect with citizen science initiatives and help inform decision making. The judging panel’s selection led to a series of ongoing workshops to encourage proactive engagement between environmental groups, government and wider industry stakeholders for the purpose of exploring solutions to the challenges.

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The aim is to identify new opportunities to make a positive contribution to net zero targets. SSLC Co-Chair Daniel Smith says that the judging panel had to be as independent as possible.

“We invited as many environmental organisations as we could think of, as well as speaking with the likes of the Scotch Whisky Association, who have recently been through a similar process of addressing sustainability head-on. We were pleased when Friends of the Earth Scotland, NatureScot and Scottish Enterprise decided to get involved.

“We were also delighted to secure participation from the European Space Agency, an organisation with 22 member states that is currently developing a Charter around the sustainable use of space.”

Members of the workshops have been joining with solution providers in an attempt to provide answers to each of the challenges. “We are already coming up with some interesting outcomes”, says Kristina. The hope is that partners can be found to take specific projects forward, with the Summit in June expected to attract investors looking to support some of the ideas that are being explored.

The outcomes from all the workshops will be publicly presented to an online audience on June 23, hosted by broadcaster Dallas Campbell and Dr. Suzie Imber. This event will also highlight the importance of ongoing collaboration and establish the next steps to be taken.

Smith explains, “We’re really keen to engage as broad an audience as possible at the Summit in June, this is not just about the space sector. Looking forward, we’re aiming to share findings at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year, as well as other major crosssectoral events such as World Expo Dubai.

“There is no doubt that environmental groups appreciate the benefits of data from space, particularly around Earth observation. “The vital work they do relies on space, like so many industries. What we felt was important was to proactively reach out to those groups to encourage productive collaboration to help the space industry source such data in a sustainable way.

“There is an opportunity to be the first country to focus on the importance of sustainable spaceflight, and that distinguishing factor gives us a competitive advantage. Satellite manufacturers, launch vehicles and launch sites in the UK are thinking about how to make their operations greener – and that’s exciting.”

What outcomes would he like to see from the Sustainable Space Challenges programme? “At a minimum the aim is to enable meaningful engagement between the growing space sector and environmental groups, now rather than later. But it would be great if the workshop discussions could lead directly to tangible outcomes, too. It’s a terrific opportunity to make Scotland a thought leader in this area.”

Derek Harris, Business Operations Manager at the Edinburgh space technology company Skyrona, is involved in the workstream on the first challenge. “When I heard about the opportunity to get involved, I had to ensure we were represented’, he says.

“To sit across the virtual table from charities and academia and hear their concerns about the industry was invaluable. I feel this is the best way forward for the emerging UK space sector to bring all parties closer while encouraging positive discussions on social and environmental responsibilities.”

Workshop 2 lead, Hina Khan of Spire, stated: “The Challenge 2 workshop focused on firstly considering how to measure the impact the space sector has on the environment, before discussing the steps required to reduce carbon emissions and work towards net zero targets. The vibrant discussion identified the great work already happening in the sector, from the environmental considerations undertaken at different spaceport sites, to emissions reporting. There is still a long way to go, but contributors are considering solutions and ways forward to make the sector more sustainable in the long run.”

And Sue Kee, Head of Business Development, Missions and Services at the Glasgow small satellite provider AAC Clyde Space who is working on the third challenge, comments: “Our discussions have been really insightful and productive. “We have identified the global opportunity for Scotland to lead the way towards net zero and the need for a coherent national approach to data sharing to support environmental initiatives.”

The Sustainable Space Summit is free to attend.

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LAST month, the NASA helicopter Ingenuity became the first aircraft to perform a powered controlled flight on a planet besides Earth, when it performed a series of short but emotional demonstration flights on Mars, writes Dr. Nicholas Ross of AstroAgency.

For anyone that has seen the videos of Ingenuity, you feel there’s something really special, and also a fair bit sentimental watching that wee helicopter take-off, hover, disappear out of the picture and then return. Alongside the dual-blade helicopter, the other part of the NASA Mars 2020 mission is the car-sized Perseverance rover, which has a suite of on-board laboratory instruments and cameras that are investigating the Martian surface and atmosphere.

One key component that led to the successful landing of the rover and the flight of the helicopter is the on-board computing. Specifically, Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or FPGAs, are fast becoming a mainstay of spaceflight hardware.

There are several FPGAs powering the cameras on Perseverance, and there is an FPGA at the heart of the electronics on Ingenuity. An FPGA is an integrated circuit that is “field-programmable” – meaning that it is designed to be configured after being manufactured. Nothing actually physically changes when doing the field programming, all the changes are done digitally to create new hardware interactions.

With the benefits of being reprogrammable and having a low power consumption, FPGAs are very well suited to long missions in deep space where you need to upgrade the firmware from a distance as the mission progresses. FPGAs can also be designed and built to be radiation tolerant, and indeed, incorporating the FPGA and the associated FPGA board hardware to meet the challenges of an extreme operating environment is a critical step.

While not directly involved in the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance and Ingenuity mission, Scottish technology companies are at the forefront of using FPGAs in space. Edinburgh-based Alpha Data is one such example. Building on 30 years of experience in deploying reliable FPGA-based solutions to the aerospace sector, Alpha Data has recently joined the growing number of Scottish companies that are powering the supply chain for next-generation space products.

The success of Ingenuity’s demonstration flights have led to an extended mission with new test flights every 2 to 3 weeks until at least the end of August. Meanwhile, the utility and use of FPGAs in space only looks set to grow with the space market in general.

This article was brought to you in association with AstroAgency