COMPASSE calls for AAS to sign the European Space Agency Zero-Debris Charter

The AAS Committee to Protect Astronomy and the Space Environment
(COMPASSE) proposes that the AAS register its intent to sign the Zero-Debris Charter (ZDC) of the European Space Agency. The vehicle is a “non-legally binding Charter as a major contribution towards space safety and sustainability, fostering a community of proactive actors working collectively towards jointly defined ambitious and measurable targets for 2030.”

To quote the guiding principles that are being promoted in this ESA charter:

1. Space debris should not be intentionally released during space activities and the unintentional generation of space debris should be minimised.

2. Adverse effects of space debris, including, but not restricted to, their impact on the population, infrastructures and the Earth environment when re-entering the atmosphere, and on dark and quiet skies [emphasis added], should be anticipated and mitigated to the greatest possible extent.

3. Constant and collaborative efforts should be made to improve our knowledge and understanding of the population of space debris of all sizes, our impact on it and its impact on us.

The specific goals include reaching a much more rigorous system of space traffic management and orbital clearing, along with more effective exchange of information and more accurate data. Future advocacy from the AAS along with globally coordinated monitoring will still be needed.

Increasing space debris could have several negative impacts on astronomy. The shared impact with all stakeholders is impeding access to orbit. Sunlight streaks from bright satellites can be both predicted and well detected; sunlight streaks from small, untracked bits of tumbling debris might still be detected at much fainter levels, but could generate — and may already have, for bright objects — many false positive detections of variable ‘stationary’ objects. Finally, the published literature contains articles modeling the risk of increasing the diffuse skyglow from scattering of sunlight by progressively smaller debris particles. Protection of the ability to perform astronomical observations is fully consistent with the AAS mission and its strategic plan.

The IAU CPS Policy Hub helped negotiate including the protection of Dark and Quiet Skies into the charter principles. Their opinion at the time was that it was a charter of the European Space Agency, so that they reached out specifically to the European Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society for initial endorsement. Since then, there has been growing sentiment that worldwide astronomy community endorsement of the Zero-Debris Charter would send a strong message that space debris poses a serious threat to global astronomical observation and discovery, and there is support for any major Agency that proposes to take steps to promote long-term protection of the space environment.

The AAS in particular, as one of the world’s most prominent professional societies in our field, would have a high-visibility endorsement, demonstrating unity of purpose with peer societies and taking a specific action in support of the objectives for which they established COMPASSE. The downside risk of refraining from support is not realizing these advantages. Although the future coexistence of scientific and commercial activities in space is still being worked out, we believe the risk to the AAS endorsing the ZDC is minimal given ESA’s binding commitment to the ZDC, and bringing potentially fruitful exchanges of information and research regarding space debris.

With approval, the next step would be for the AAS President or her designee to register intent officially. COMPASSE is prepared to provide any necessary supporting material for those forms.