The Challenge

The clean way is the right way

Debris flying in space - ESA

Reaching for the sky leaves footprints on the ground.Through its Clean Space initiative, ESA is pioneering an eco-friendly approach to space activities. On the ground, that means adopting greener industrial materials, processes and technologies. In space, it means preserving Earth’s orbital environment as a safe zone, free of debris.

In the modern world, the quest to be environmentally friendly has been transforming the competitive landscape, as eco-friendly design turns into a new frontier of innovation. ESA is embracing this trend. Information on the environmental impact of Agency activities is, and will be, increasingly requested by ESA’s industrial, institutional and international partners, under pressure from customers, stakeholders and citizens.

Numerous analyses worldwide have shown the need for space debris removal, to contend with the proliferation of space debris. The only way to preserve key orbits for future use is to shrink the current amount of debris in absolute terms, which will require novel technologies and approaches for the removal of debris and the design of non-debris creating missions.

There is also substantial industrial potential: companies and organisations that take swift action towards meeting emerging regulations will obtain the competitive advantage of being first into the market. By fostering innovation, Clean Space aims to turn environmental challenges into opportunities for European space industry, to ensure a safer and cleaner environment both on Earth and in space.

The clean way will be the only way

ESA's 2013 space debris video, produced by the Space Debris Office at ESA/ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany
The Space debris Story

The process of ensuring the Agency’s compliance with current and upcoming regulations marks a first step in the process of transitioning its activities to a more sustainable footing through the adoption of clean technologies.

While space may be a low-volume industry when compared to other terrestrial industries (for instance, there are millions more cars produced each year than there are satellites) but space activities can have a wide reach: rocket launches, for example, are the only human activity that affects all segments of the atmosphere.

New legislative demands and regulations such as the European Commission’s regulation on the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive overseeing toxic substances threaten to impact the space industry by imposing potential limitations on currently essential materials.

It will bring competitiveness and innovation

While it may seem tempting to adhere to the lowest environmental standards for as long as possible, it is smarter to comply with the most stringent rules, and do so before they are enforced. Environmental regulations in Europe have implications for space programmes, the most immediate implication being the disruption of qualified materials and processes.

Action is necessary to turn a threat into an opportunity.

Enterprises that focus on meeting emerging norms gain more time to experiment with materials, technologies and processes and this yields substantial first-mover advantage in terms of fostering innovation, which will enable agencies like ESA to change the way they think about technologies and processes.

One challenge, three solutions

Since 2012, ESA’s Clean Space initiative has been systematically considering the entire life-cycle of space activities, from the early stages of conceptual design to the mission’s end of life – and even beyond, to removal of space debris.

Clean Space has three branches, reflecting its mission to assess the environmental impact of Agency programmes as a first step to finding ways to address them in future, and contributing to a more sustainable and competitive European space industry.

These branches are:

  • EcoDesign: designing to address environmental impacts and foster green technologies
  • CleanSat: designing to reduce the production of space debris
  • eDeorbit: removing a large piece of space debris from orbit

Last update: 7 April 2016

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