Custodians of the cosmos

An evening of exploration of the central role that space plays in our everyday lives.

Join Professor Andy Lawrence from The Royal Observatory Edinburgh and eminent photographer Max Alexander for an exploration of the central role that space plays in our everyday lives. Learn about the increasing threat of space debris and why studying the skies is of vital cultural and economic importance. Discover the people and technology that are working to protect this fragile environment and how unconstrained growth may put both space activity and astronomy at risk. This discussion is centred on the themes of Max Alexander’s major photography exhibition Our Fragile Space, which is exhibited throughout the Edinburgh Science Festival on The Mound.

This event is presented by Royal Observatory Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival.


Please note that this transcript has been automatically generated so it may feature errors.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  00:00

Good evening, and welcome to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And thank you for joining us this evening, whether in person making it through their wind and rain, or online through YouTube, YouTube, thank you very much for being here. I’m Joanne Wheeler, Managing Partner at Alden Legal and Director of the Earth-Space Sustainability Initiative. I’m honoured truly honoured to be here this evening, particularly as a proud Edinburgh girl. And it’s been excellent to engage with Max Alexander and Professor Andy Lawrence. And thank you to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for hosting us this evening. A little bit of housekeeping before we start, we are not expecting a fire alarm. But if when goes off, please exit the building where you came in and head up to the dome. And there will be staff here to help us and direct. We will be taking questions through the talks. But please keep your questions. And we’ll do a q&a just at the end. If you would like to ask a question and you’re online, please put it in the chat. And hopefully you will. We’ll read your question out at the end. Well, thank you again for joining us this evening. Outer space and the night sky had been humanity’s constant from our very beginning. And I hope for generations to come. But our perspective of space is changing. And our use of space is changing us. We look more at our screens nowadays than the skies and no longer look to the stars to forecast the weather, as a clock, or a calendar. Yet in 2024 we rely on outerspace more than we ever have before. And as the King stated, We must now develop a sustainable way, a durable way of benefiting from space, just as we must here on Earth. We need to recognise our shared responsibility for the earth and space ecosystem, our home. Now arguably territorial behaviour in space has already taken precedence over a considered collaboration. The number of debris objects tracked by space surveillance networks is now over 35,150  all over five centimetres, and some larger than a Lothian bus – double decker. There are about 9000 active satellites at almost 60% belonging to one commercial American company. Now to put this into perspective, just four weeks ago, two satellites came between five and 20 metres close to each other. Metres. Now I remember when it was close conjunction was 22 kilometres five and 20 metres together. Now had this resulted in a collision, the amount of debris in earth object would have increased by 50%. We are seeing close encounters more than we ever have before and particularly in the last few years. And the SpaceX Starlink spacecraft, for example, made collision avoidance manoeuvres 50,000 times in the 12 months to December 2023. This is a complex problem without a panacea. Now yes, we have five International Space treaties, but none of them deal with space debris conclusively, and countries apply international law regulation inconsistently and there’s no level playing field. Over 80% of activities now are commercial. And I do believe the greatest and most significant change towards the space sustainability will come from the private sector. And maybe in the incentivised private sector. Now searching behaviours in space will and are harming the ability of companies to serve the users, to access insurance, finance, to serve other countries, and quite simply to generate revenue. It is the interest of commercial operators now to behave responsibly and sustainably in orbit. And I’m seeing incentives for selfmade operators to avail themselves of licences from regulators like the UK Space Agency, which take space sustainability seriously. We can through licencing, insurance, finance and market access, create commercial incentives to use space sustainability practices. Now we stand today at a critical juncture. We must act to ensure that space is sustainable, safe and accessible. For future missions for other countries, and our country and generations unborn. We need to ensure that space continues to support the environmental, economic, and scientific interests of current and future generations. And we need to continue to be able to benefit from space in all of the vital satellite and Earth applications, and encourage the development of new applications and innovation. We’re at a juncture where we have to put aside competitive differences and come together to produce an international, multidisciplinary, multi sectoral response, enabled by clear and transparent standards incentives, we need to apply new ways of managing space sustainably, applying greater stewardship. Now, if we were to all meet back here in 25 years time, and look back on this decade, I hope we would recognise a turning point in this understanding, and to help us achieve and appreciate what this turning point should look like. I’m going to introduce and I have great pleasure to introduce our two guest speakers. Max Alexander is a photographer and creative strategist who specialises in science communication through visual storytelling. He freelances for a number of prestigious organisations around the world, including the UK and the European Space agencies and the Square Kilometre Array. He also generates and delivers large scale projects and quite honestly, his photography, touch his hearts and minds. And Professor Andy Lawrence is the Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, and a specialist in the physics of quasars. He has long been involved in making surveys of the sky, which is what led him to study the issues we’re about to hear about tonight. So I’m going to hand over to Professor Andy Lawrence to set the scene. Thank you very much.

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  06:48

Well, thank you. So that’s the opening slide. That’s the three of us. Joanne, myself, and Max Alexander, you’re going to get me briefly and then Max. And then I’ll come back and then we’re going to have a q&a session. So that’s the plan. So you’ve heard from Joanne and now me. Okay, so I’m going to kick us off this evening, by describing four shocks that I’ve had over the last few years. But first, let me explain something. There’s three things I’ve always loved through my whole life pretty much. The first is galaxies. The second is computers. And the third is space. So there’s me and Yuri Gagarin in 1963. I’m the one on the right. So during my career, those three things came together. So I take pictures of galaxies using telescopes in space. And then I analysed them on computers. But here we go with shock number one, late 2019 streaks started appearing in astronomers images. Now I’m sure most of you know, this stage. What these are, these are Starlink satellites, streaking across the sky and invading photobombing our images. It’s not just professional astronomers, amateur astronomers, as well. Is Andrew Farrell here actually, no, he’s not anyway. So a member of the Astronomical Society here in Edinburgh, that’s one of his pictures, ordinary people, too. I think over the last few years, whenever you get to a reasonably clear sky somewhere, you’re more likely to see satellites crawling across the sky than used to be the case. Now, there’s always been satellite trails, occasionally in our images, so So what’s new, why is this so bad? Okay, so here’s shocked number two. It’s the rate of growth. So this is a bit technical. So here we have a graph. So this is the number of objects against them year here. So just concentrate for now, on this blue line, we’ll come back to some of the others later. This is the number of working satellites, active satellites as a function of time. And you can see that as of just a few years ago, it started going crazy. Okay, zooming up. So the worry is not just how many satellites are there now? It’s where is this going to stop? Where is it going? What is it going to be like in 10 years, or 20 years? We just don’t know where this is going to end. And I began to realise as this worried me and many other astronomers that it’s some it’s not just astronomy, okay, as the sky becomes more crowded, it becomes harder for commercial operators as well. So if you’re running a communication satellite, it’s more and more likely that some other satellite will crash To the line of sight to your ground station or your consumer user terminal, and satellites will interfere with each other. So the sky is becoming more crowded. Okay, but then of course worrying about these things, I remembered that it’s not just about the large things, we know that, as has already been mentioned, there are pieces of debris left over parts, shattered pieces, etc. The space junk. So here was shocked number three, when I did a calculation, as a number of others have done of exactly how much energy is carried by a piece of space junk. So, in orbit, things are moving at a typical average relative velocity of about 10 kilometres a second. Now that’s very fast, okay, and at such high velocities, even small things carry a lot of energy. So, even something about the size of a sort of coarse grain of sand carries enough punch, that you can make a hole in the side of your spacecraft. something the size of a small glass marble, maybe you know about the size of your thumbnail. Okay, that is about the same amount of energy as a really fast bowler delivering a cricket ball at your head at 100 kilometres an hour. A cricket ball on the other hand, moving at 10 kilometres a second is like being hit by a rocket propelled grenade and can completely destroy your spacecraft. Now, things like this, maybe 10 centimetres across, we can see those from the ground with our radars or telescopes, they’re tracked, we know where they are all these things. And we think there are probably millions of them, we have no idea where they are. So the next thing I did was to plot a circle of 10 kilometre radius around to the Royal Observatory. And you can see and if I’m sitting on top of Blackford hill there, if I’m looking for one of these small glass marbles, I need to be able to see it as far away as Dalkeith and to see within a second, okay, now, that’s pretty tricky. But even if I can do that one second later, wallop your hit your satellites dead. This, by the way is why why space might seem empty. But actually, it’s quite full, because you have to take account of that kind of region of safety. That brings us on to shock number four, which I’ve been only been really real, realising it’s important relatively recently. It’s the stuff is coming back down. Okay. So the rain of junk. So let’s go back to our graph. Now, this time, look at this grey level. Didn’t mean to do that. Okay, first error tonight was all smooth until now, isn’t it? Okay, now let’s try and be more careful with the finger. The grey line is the tracks debris, which you can see is also going up, but it’s not going up as fast as the blue line. Now, that seems good. Okay, so we’ve got better at not making debris than we used to be. And this is true. Okay. And that is a good thing. But mostly, that gap is closing. Because it is now policy for various reasons to try and avoid making debris. By de orbiting as you lower the orbits, you let things reenter and burn up. Okay? So that’s what is increasingly happening to nearly all those things. But when something burns up, the stuff it’s made of does not just vanish, okay? It’s still in the atmosphere. Okay, some of it may slowly sink, but most of it is still in the atmosphere. And it’s all sorts of to detect between the rockets going up and the satellites coming back down. We’re depositing soot, aluminium, nitrous oxides, and even charged dust particles, which one of my colleagues here believes could be altering the magnetosphere which protects us from incoming cosmic rays. So it could be bad news. But finally, it’s also the case that not all those things burn up. Okay, somehow lumps end up coming down. There’s a spent fuel tank somewhere in Africa. If you saw in the Guardian this morning, there was actually a report of a piece of the International Space Station just landed on somebody’s house in Florida. Okay, it happens. Now, just imagine one of those little glass marbles hitting an aeroplane on the way down 300 People will be dead. It’s going to happen one day. Okay. So finally, the I’m a physicist, so I like doing calculations. But really, if you want to get this sort of thing across, you’ve got to tell a story with pictures and engages people. So this is what Max is all about. Max made this amazing exhibition Our Fragile Space, which right now is down there at the foot of the mound. If you haven’t seen it already go and see it, it is it is wonderful. So at this point, I’m going to hand over to Max, who give us a little bit more detail about what’s going on

Max Alexander  15:25

Hi, everybody, how you doing? Good. Have you seen some of you seen the exhibition already it down there? So, okay, so it’s a bit drier in here. And we’re gonna go through quite a few of them and tell that story. But it’s really amazing to be here to be invited tonight. Thank you so much, Joanne and Andy, for for tonight. So really appreciate that. You need the pointer here. Very good. Okay, so Our Fragile Space, what is this about? So the exhibition is about three different things. It’s about how we benefit from the use of space, how space is starting to become very congested, and what we’re doing about it, those are the three basic ideas behind the exhibition. It’s also about this is not an unlimited resource, people think of space as being an infinite resource. But near space around the Earth where the satellites are, is really become part of this environment. I know Andy’s working on the technical description of that, but then satellites are coming closer and closer to the earth. So we need to be good stewards of that environment, like any environment on the earth. So I use photographer photography exhibition. So I’m using reportage and documentary photography, also portraiture, so we’re telling human stories spaces about us down here on Earth. So it’s really important to say that, but also, I used some, some art photography indulged myself haven’t really done that before. This time, I’ve really done that to make the invisible visible, because we can’t really see it. So to bring that tangibly back down to earth. So I’ve worked in the space sector for about 10 years or so, as Joanne said, for UK space agency and other agencies around the world. So I guess in some ways, I’m an insider, and I kind of know how the world works up to a certain point, I’m kind of in a unique position, because I’m coming, you know, working with all these different agencies and, and government sectors. So to do this project, I had to work with space agencies, government, academia, astronomy, finance, insurance, military, so all those different fields, I think the point of that is to get the job done here, to change our behaviour in space, it’s going to require all those different communities to come together. It’s not there’s not one single solution to the problem. And so I think, you know, I think I’m lucky that hopefully, this project gives you that big overview of what’s actually going on. So the starting point for the exhibition is really astronomy. That’s my background, I studied it. And I collaborated with a professor of astronomy at University College London, and we sort of build a team of people. Stuart Clark was the writer on this project he’s working with Joanne now. So this is very much a team effort to produce something like this. So astronomy is my starting point, as I said, if you can see that image, clearly, this is a picture I took in Chile for in Paranell. But it’s really it’s the project is about many different things. But it’s about the loss of the night sky, and the impact on astronomy. And that’s really the starting point of the project for me. So the exhibition open at Lloyds of London that the global insurance market. And so you can see it here on the right was opened by Tim Peake, the British astronaut, who’s figures in the exhibition here. And Joanne was one of the panellists. So a lot of things happened that night. And we can talk a bit more about that later. But the exhibition opened. So Lloyds really bought into this, because they’re very worried about risk. I mean, they’ve got very serious analysts, and it’s a very uninsured market. So there’s that side of it, but they’re very concerned. I think I’m right in saying only 3% of satellites are insured. So it’s a very, it’s incredibly low number. The exhibition, we had this final transfer on the floor here. And it was designed by Rogers architects, actually, they designed this installation here, but we have this so you can see here at scale. Oops, didn’t want to do that. Okay, so we’ve got the earth here, so I just can’t dodge myself. We’re at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. So I got the 3D printed and took me a long time to paint it as well. But for one of the photographs in the exhibition, so satellites used to be out at 36. Most of them were out at 36,000 kilometres. So in geostationary, so it’s a fixed point in space, and they would sit over your country to give you telecommunications. It’s a generalisation but it’s about three widths of the earth. But now the satellites coming closer to the earth. They’re only a couple of million metres away at the scale at low, low Earth orbit Leo. Okay, so an average range for the Starlink constellation is 550 kilometres. So that’s from here to London. So you could drive there in a day, if you could drive to space, you could get there on a day. So it’s really no distance at all. So proximity is really important. And on the floor here, when I press the wrong button, so wait, this is This is Leo here, you can’t see it. But we put something up here, which shows you where geostationary satellites are at that scale. So the point is that the satellites are coming closer and closer to the earth. That’s really the takeaway there. So the benefits of space, so we all benefit from space, you probably used images, Google Maps to get here tonight. So and you would have definitely engaged with space today, you may not be aware of it, but that you have done telecommunication. So I’ll just run through some photographs now three of the first chapter of the exhibition, if you like about how we benefit from space. So it’s all the economic, societal and scientific benefits we get from space. And that’s not going to change that’s not going to go away, it’s only going to increase as telecommunications. Back to the days of the sky b and SES here. Back to so this a lot of the wealth of Luxembourg comes from from that sector and still continues to be the case. Sat Navs. So downtown Los Angeles on a Friday night, people are getting home probably using their Sat Navs in that that’s a trail of an aeroplane in the sky. They’re using a sat nav as well. Farming about 50% of arable land in the UK is uses Sat Navs but uses GPS. So that yellow signal box at the top of the tractor there is us speaking to a satellite for for best practice on the farm. Photograph here in the West western highlands. So a Scottish company. They’re tracking tracking deer. And they use that analysis for farm management. I believe there’s an overpopulation of deer and in Scotland. So more than about 60% of climate variables to measure the health of our planet is done from space. And that is only going to increase over time. So this is Sentinel 5pm, Airbus and Stevenage. And they are looking for things like trace gases like methane in the atmosphere. So the use of spaces is increasingly important is spy and Glasgow. So they’re producing cube sets, it’s actually just that small. press the wrong button. That small little cube set there, you saw the size of the previous telescope satellites are getting smaller just the normal pattern of technology that miniaturises. So this is a spike the satellite is looking at weathering and weather forecasting, and has another application maritime financial services, this is the strength stock exchange. So nanoseconds count. So when they’re making a financial transaction, you get a competitive advantage. So the closer the satellites are to the earth, so the internet, you know, so Starlink is providing global constellation of for the internet use, but also financial services play a key role, and an investment for those constellations. Position navigation and timing at sea. This is port of Southampton. But the point of this photograph of is that 18% of the world’s economy, nearly a fifth of the world’s economy is supported by the use of space. And that’s only set to grow, that percentage will only grow over time. And we’re just probably at the beginning of that curve now. The second part of the project, I’m going to depress you a bit for next minute or two anthropogenic change. So we’re unfortunately we’re polluting on the land, plastic in the oceans. And it’s a good analogue for space debris up to a point and carbon in the atmosphere, I flew a lot for the project, we’re all to blame as a species one way or another. And now that’s carbon in the atmosphere. And now this fourth domain of space. So I think we can apply all those same practices that we’re here on terrestrial on earth, to the near space environment or to outer space where the satellites are. So how much is in space and he was starting to talk about this. There’s about 10,000 tonnes of satellites, defunct satellites, rocket bodies and debris. That’s about a scrap yard if you can imagine as a scrap yard that’s about 10,000 tonnes, or the Eiffel Tower weighs 10,000 tonnes. That if you imagined the Eiffel Tower, you might not think 65 years of launch that might not be a lot. But there are 2.5 million rivets in the Eiffel Tower. And each of those rivets could take your satellite out, as Andy was saying before, so the tremendous energy and in each of those, so 47% of 47% of what’s in space is aluminium and this is anatomy In the scrap heap, and kind of when I saw that scene, they look like rocket bodies to me. So we’re using serendipitous encounters to hopefully get a good picture and tell the story. Launch so Joanne’s working on this with her initiative at the moment. So launch regulations. I won’t dwell on that too much, but there are some so for deorbit. Actually, and I’ll come back to that point when I show you another photograph later. So noctilucent clouds Senate. If people see noctilucent clouds are at about 80 kilometres 100 kilometres up. So they’ve only really been recorded since the Industrial Revolution. And they may be maybe a marker of climate change and the rate of noctilucent clouds has grown significantly during this space age. So it’s an active field of research. And it’s probably benign to human health, but you can see that we’re changing our entire planet. We’re putting new clouds in space probably. So now the astronomy side of the project. This is Jodrell Bank familiar probably to most of you here in Cheshire. This is radio sky, you see this band here, and I’ve done the trick again.


Okay, well, that the narrower the, the sort of less opaque arc the Milky Way and the top is the sun. The strong arc is geostationary satellites. So for radio astronomy, it’s a bigger problem than optical astronomy, for I’ve understood correctly. Optical astronomy, it’s a problem. It’s a much bigger problem for radio astronomy, it’s really noisy hearing oll these satellites. Moriba Jah. So slight change of pace here a different look to the photograph. So Moriba through through Andy and others here in Edinburgh. What Professor Moriba Jah he’s at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s an aerodynamicist, they brought him over here, and he’s now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And he has a kind of a leadership role. It’s more sort of a space environmentalist perspective, and that that is coming. And he’s playing a kind of a leadership role in in space in space traffic management. Now we’ve got some examples of actual pieces of debris. So this is the first recorded piece of debris that is an area in rocket the collider with itself with different stages. We’ve got a fuel tank here, Andy showed a fuel tank, this was launched from Cape Canaveral, ended up 2000 orbits later in Mongolia. So aerodynamically, fuel tanks can find their way back down to the earth. So this isn’t a real photograph, this is a piece of artwork. But the project took about a year to do to photograph and every time I went to a cleanroom, to a space agency to a museum or private collection, I photographed examples of what’s in space. So this is a very accurate representation of what’s up there. So you know, we’re not all know these engineering components. But if you see it, you know, you perhaps have a different response to it. So there are fuel tanks there. There are solar panels, rocket bodies, screws, I’ve got a cable tie in there. So you can see what’s an aggregate of what’s in space. High Velocity impacts, again, Andy mentioned that before, but that firing at the University of Kent, just three millimetre wide piece of plastic into a copper block. And that’s at twice the speed of a bullet, but in space, as Andy was saying would be 10 times that velocity. And he showed a picture of the the Hubble Space Telescope. This is the solar panel for the space telescope that they bought down when they repaired it. And it’s got an impact on it, that have to do a chemical analysis to see if it was a micro meteorite or piece of debris. But if it was a piece of debris, it’ll be something like small as a fleck of paint or a small screw or something like that. If some of you seen the film, gravity, people nodding in the audience here. So the Kessler syndrome, so this is Donald Kessler in the 1970s. He came up with this mathematical model. So it’s one satellite hits, another creates a debris field and those pieces of debris have a cascading effect through creating a chain reaction here. So it’s pretty amazing experience spending a day with him, he spent a lot we’ve got eight boxes of Domino’s ordered from Amazon and got to went to a store. I drove up from Cape Canaveral to North Carolina, lovely man, go spend a day with them. And they spent a lot of time with his wife working out how to put this all together. So I’m 2023 Last year in 2023, there were over 200 launches. So that’s one every two days. So this is the beginning of the industrialization space. That’s we’re living through that era now. Just as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So we’re starting we’re living through that area right now. So I saw I’ve never seen a launch in my life. And I saw three in five days. So when this is Vandenberg Air Force Base, and so one day later in Cape Canaveral, and then when a couple of days later, so this is all Starlink launches. Ever, any of you seen Starlink launch flyover, it’s, it’s an incredible experience for you to get a chance. It’s an amazing 21st century experience. So after launch, they separate them out into the train, or the stitch daisy chain. And then they then form a matrix around the Earth. But you can see it like this if you if you prepare, if you can see that on the screen there just a bit. So I’ll just spend a couple of moments talking about this photograph here. This is equivalent of a two and a half hour exposure in the dawn sky. So if you want to know technically how I did it, I did a series of one minute exposures and we stick them all together, working Ian Howeth, he did all the work on the editing on his photograph, Professor Ian Howeth. So Ian said to me, this is Petra, Fn and Wales. Okay, and you’ve got Taurus, you’ve got Orion rising above this capstone that’s been there for six 6000 years. 5000 years is a 16 tonne capstone is amazing sight. And Ian said to me, we you better be prepared for this night because they’re delayed Starlink launch by two hours, and Stan is going to fly over Wales. So you see that, that strong diagonal running through the picture of the strongest one, I’m too scared to press this button now. So that that is that is Starlink. That’s International Space Station. Everything else you see there are rocket bodies and satellites. So as Joanne was saying, there are about 1000 satellites roughly 10 years ago, now there are roughly 10,000 satellites, that may be an order of magnitude change in the next 10 years, as Andy says, we just don’t know. So you can see how crowded the sky is now in the two and a half hour period. So that’s set to increase exponentially.

Max Alexander  32:08

This is on tracking of satellites. I won’t dwell on this too much. But this is in Hawaii on the left is astronomy and on the right as the United States Space Force and Air Force. So they’re increasingly repurposing or they are utilising their facilities to, you know, for an attack to then look at space debris and satellites. And you can see a trailer satellite in the sky there. This is a military facility in Madrid. And so they’re tracking pieces of debris. And anybody see the oldest piece of debris they’re tracked at the top was 1973. So that piece of debris been tracked for 50 years. So stuff we’re launching today will be tracked in the future for decades and potentially longer if it doesn’t do orbit So space sustainability what what is that? So the circular economy, space, environmentalism, sustainability, Darren’s, I think we were talking about that later in the panel, and Joanne’s playing a leadership role with this. So So deorbiting is one of the tools here so to deorbit defunct satellites that are that could explode at the end of their lives, or they may be dormant and could be a threat. The UK Government – this is a competitor to to Astroscale, it’s a Japanese company with UK interests. They’re growing in scale at the moment. And so they’ve given 12 million pounds to this Swiss company to Astroscale because this is costing 80 million euros to to deal with one satellite. So that’s not sustainable financially, but they want to bring that price down, of course, but who’s going to pay for that in the future? That is that is a challenge. So this is a drag sale. Another way to deorbit. This is a Tiziana Cardone, she’s an engineer at European Space Agency. So she designed this how to deal with a satellite. So this is singularly the most boring picture in the front of the exhibition, but it may also be one of the most important, so Tiziana designed this system here. So one of the themes of the Edinburgh Science Festival is biomaterials. So this is her design for a bio material. This is made from flex plant. Okay, so Andy was talking about when they know that the American science body have done a study of the upper atmosphere and they’ve found 10% of sulfuric acid particles have traces of aluminium and other other minerals that that you only find in satellites. So that’s already beginning. If you’ve got an order of magnitude even if you’re going to deorbit stuff in the future. You know, there is no if you say throw something away, even in space, there is no way it’s coming back down to the earth and talking before about the impact on the marine life as well. So this could become a thing Japan has just designed a wooden satellite. So let’s say that will burn up in the atmosphere. So what’s going to burn up all wood will burn up in the atmosphere Refuelling – again space sustainability. So some of you may have caught a train here tonight, or tram. And they didn’t throw away the tram at the end of your journey. So satellites are like single use plastic. Yeah. And we use them once you want to refuel them and keep them in space. This is Orbit fab with American company with UK interests. So this could become mandatory on some satellites in the future, maybe they’ll regulate in the future for that. Spaceforge a company in Wales and they have got a heat shield to bring the satellite back down to earth. Okay, and then repurpose the satellite and then take it back into space again, the circular economy. They we hit they track this of course, they said it’s probably going to end up in a tree and it did with this is in the Brecon Beacons, and we drove across to bath and it was to way too high to get it. So get a tree surgeon to get it down. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty was rushed through two years before we went to the moon. There’s the Artemis accords which American led initiative with I think the UK is a signatory to that, I believe so. And I think nearly 20 countries around the world are now. So famously in 1967. So there were three of these sign one was in London, this is the one from London from Kew Gardens, which I found one was in Washington, the other one was in Moscow. So even during the Cold War, they managed to sign a treaty for that. And but famously, there’s no mention there of space debris. And that is a problem. So it takes 50 years to write maritime law. And we don’t have the rate of launch within 50 years to write a new space law. So I’m straying into space law here one the world’s leading space law expert, so I won’t go too far with that. But you get the idea on that. So civil society, Joanne Wheeler here. So she’ll talk more, I’m sure we’ll talk more about the role that Joanne paying but the role of civil society working with government working with agencies and working with financial insurance and sectors, so one of the levers for change, and an economic the economic driver for change in the use of space. Got my globe here, this is Professor Marek, see bet he’s at the University of UCL University College London. So Marik works on a whole range of things, but he’s developing metrics for how we can measure space. So that was very simple metric of 1.5 degrees Celsius for for climate change. So Marik is working on that. But the point of that photograph is that we we still have the world in our hands. Okay, so the exhibition’s been running for about 18 months. I need to get some sleep. I’ve been working pretty hard. On the left there, the top left and Coventry Cathedral, been to Jodrell Bank, Lloyds of London Of course, here in Edinburgh, it’s been to the Eden Project. It’s been to spaceport Cornwall, where they had launched it was on the marquee their New York Stock Exchange had a small display there. United Nations, they’ve got United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. And this is the the then director of UN also. So that was there at the UN and head of voice at the UN for for what’s going on in space. And on the right here is the European Parliament. So I’m very proud of the outcomes of the exhibition. So I know Joanne, Joanne, made some announcements at the exhibition at Lloyds of London. This is a roundtable discussion, which was held several months after that. And so there’s some fantastic outcomes. I was told that the exhibition has galvanised space sustainability for the UK Government. And our space is now included in the purpose statement of Lloyd some very proud of those outcomes. And there’s a lot more to come so Joanne’s here, this is this is Bruce Kennedy Brown is the chairperson of Lloyd’s of London, the science minister and are captains of industry in the space sector and senior civil servants discussing the future and future architecture of space. So with that, I will just say a few thank yous. I’ve got a lot of people to thank. And so thank you so much Andy through the University of Edinburgh. And to help us get over the line here in the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. So amazing with your help, and also Daniel Smith, who’s here tonight from Astroagency for his team. So these guys really made it happen. And, you know, it’s been on Scottish television. It’s been in four national newspapers, Andy’s story, and just fantastic coverage and 50,000 people will see it here in the middle of Edinburgh. So just amazing this collaboration to make all this happen. So very much a team team effort. So thank you very much for the Royal Society of Edinburgh for having us here. Amazing to be here today. Skyrora. If Derek’s here, Derrick Harris, waving at the back, thank you very much Scarborough for your support for this. Appreciate that. Craft prospect. These are all Scottish based companies now to craft prospect for data services for downstream services. Alpha data a man has analytics and claire us here tonight. Thank you claire. And, and again, I mentioned Astro scale. So with that, I will pass you over to Andy.

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  41:07

Okay, so this is just a few slides that will lead us into the question answer session will be the three of us will have together so so get your questions ready. Right. So things are a bit worrying, as Max has been emphasising. And as Tolstoy has said, rather a few years ago, what then must we do? Now, it’s very important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because fantastic things are happening in Scotland in space. So we make spacecraft, we make rockets, we will soon be launching rockets, we build scientific instruments. There, that’s part of the James Webb Space Telescope built right here in Edinburgh. So we’ve got to find some sort of balance between encouraging economic activity on the one hand, and not going crazy. On the other hand, so how do we do that? Just a few possibilities. Well, for Max and myself, raising public awareness is a key thing. So that’s what we’re doing here tonight. In this event, Max ‘s exhibition, I wrote a popular book which you may enjoy. We can get organised. So astronomers around the world formed the Centre for protection of this the sky under the umbrella of the of the International Astronomical Union, and doing some marvellous work. We can cooperate. So American astronomers in particular, have worked with SpaceX engineers, discussing, you know, how do we make the satellites not quite so bright? How do we think about that aspect tangled during the the orbit, raising phase, stuff like that. So all very useful. We got another hand, we can get tough, we could litigate. So this was something I was in involving writing a so called amicus brief for a legal appeal made by a couple of companies against the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that they should have performed an environmental assessment before going ahead. It, it fails, but it was, you know, attracted some some attention. Here in Scotland, where we’re lucky, I see Christina grinning now, we’re lucky that we have something called Space Scotland. So it’s a partnership of, of companies, academia, policymakers. And, and in particular, what we should be proud of, I think, is this document here. There’s a Scottish space sustainability roadmap. So it’s ahead of the rest of the UK in this regard, which is important because space in Scotland is about the kind of leap upwards. So number one thing I would say is to take the actions in this document seriously, and push them forward. So Daniel, and Christina and a bunch of others were very much the sort of masterminds behind that. But also nationally, now internationally, it’s time for Joanne to blush again, because this is the Earth space sustainability initiative. So this is some all about standards. Okay, so and it brings together industry, academia, government, and most importantly, the finance and insurance industries. So it’s about setting standards which then the those financial industries will take seriously and hopefully turn into regulations, and that shows signs of really taking off. So finally, what can the general public do? Well, in short, the answer is spread the word thing. Tell your friends and neighbours if you think this does matter, write your local representitives. Just tell people about it and get a bit of a buzz going. So that’s it. So I’m going to hand over again now to Joanne to being who chaired this last session, the three of us are going to sit down here and take your questions. Okay.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  45:16

Thank you very much. Now, I’m sure you have some questions in the audience or potentially questions online. But over to you for questions, comments? How wonderful the exhibition was? Is it still open till the 18th of April? Is that right? Any questions online? Otherwise? I’m going to start by asking a question.  So just to follow up on what Andy has just said, the impact of our actions today may not be known for some time. But what are some indicators over the next few years that maybe we should be looking at? What notable actions or behaviours? Should we be seeing that might give us a little bit more confidence? She says, with a fingers crossed, that shows that industry and society finance and insurance are on the right path for a space sustainability. What indicators might we be wanting to see? I have to say one indicators is simply your exhibition at the mound. I think, once the government gave me, probably the best advice they ever gave me, is if you want to influence something influenced the man who watches X Factor. And actually hearts and minds of people is is key here, Max. So I think you’ve had a huge impact, you continue to have a huge impact. But what notable behaviours, what should we be looking at for indications that we’re managing to deal with a space sustainability issue?

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  47:11

How will we know if it’s if it’s working? Well, is tempting to say the rate of launch is slowing down. But I think that might be too too much too hopeful. I’d like to see people in industry and in government, making much more concrete statements rather than sort of sustainability buzzwords. So I, if I see actions happening, that really are going to reduce the amount of aluminium going into the atmosphere, or asking questions about how many satellites you really need to deliver a service, as opposed to beat the competition. So so that’s all a bit very general, but I think concrete statements rather than warm, fuzzy ones, and concrete actions, concrete actions going with that, yes.

Max Alexander  48:18

commercial sector buying into, you know, the standards, either through business or peer group pressure, and signing up to the standards that are coming in, you know, the encouragement that they’ve been given either through regulation or through self governance. So environment, society and governance, those three things I know you’re working on, so that I don’t know what the metrics are for those and how you how you do that. But I suppose that’s the barometer, environment, society and governance, adherence to that.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  48:49

And you do need a bit of governance a bit of into inspiration. incentivization does actually help. Any questions before I ask another wonderful gentleman right at the back?

Audience member  49:03

Hi, Richard Osborne, Astro agency. My colleague, Daniel is probably thinking, Oh, my God, what’s he gonna ask this time. But you talk about the problem of spacecraft coming or satellites coming back into the atmosphere and it creating an an issue. So to some extent, you have the law of unintended consequences in that the mandate is for things to deorbit after five years, yet, it could be creating a problem in the atmosphere. Would it not be a suggestion that you put things where you get things intended to lead them to deorbit? You try and put them in a graveyard orbit? So essentially, legally, you would establish an orbit to which satellites would ascend via propulsion at the end of their mission, and that way, you’d have some means some opportunity to potentially pick them up. At the end of the mission, then almost almost like a space junkyard, I suppose. But that way you move in them out of harm’s way. I don’t know whether it’s feasible, but it’s an option and more opportunity for for you within the legal spheres, as well, Joanne.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  50:35

and, Richard, you mean this not just in geo to go up to Geo graveyard, but also potentially one lower, high, low earth orbit, for example? And did you have any comments?

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  50:47

Well, this is something that’s evolved, because I’m in for for a couple of decades, as I’m sure you know, you know, guidelines have suggested either going down or going up into a graveyard orbit. And recently, because of the pressure to occupy those crucial low Earth orbit slots, the assumption has been, it’s about going going down rather than going going up. It’s a bit depressing that you you you can’t win the trouble with going up, of course, is that precisely the things are there, then there for a very long time. So over longer timescales, the debris problem is going to get worse and worse. So I don’t know what the solution is. And I had I think two years ago, I had a thought, and I bring them down as this is the better thing. But I think the sort of evidence that Max was quoting about than the amount of pollution that surveys have been finding that’s due to spacecraft in the upper atmosphere is suddenly very depressing. Because that really is, it’s not working either. So I think if we can do it, that something like that circular economy that you really, really reuse, but that’s really a very difficult challenge for industry.

Max Alexander  52:10

Do people know what a graveyard orbit is. So it geostationary 36,000 kilometres, they push the satellites out to 40,000 kilometres. And so they park them there. And they use the last of their fuel to do that. So there’s a cost of doing that. I don’t know, Richard, about the cost of getting from Leo up to, you know, for propellants, and so on to get out to the graveyard orbit. But graveyard orbit is not like for everybody, because those reports will eventually decay, and we’ll come back down. All orbits will decay eventually over different timescales. So you know, perhaps years for Leo, maybe decades for mio and longer for geo, roughly so but those orbits will will build will decay over time. So are you just sweeping the rug and the dust out of the carpet?

Audience member  52:59

A sort of Leo graveyard orbit because obviously, propulsion wise, they only going to have the capability to go up to maybe several 100 kilometres over where they are currently. But even that, if it’s a point of which things can then be collected, you’re slightly improving the odds because the technology will move on to a level at which we’ll be able to recover space junk, hopefully,

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  53:32

Richard, I think it’s a very good point, actually, because we’ve got the most important low in space is probably the law of big numbers. And there are a lot of big, big numbers and a lot of metal up there. And no one has really done the nitty gritty analysis of deorbiting hundreds of satellites. Now, five years ago, there was a study done by the European Space Agency about what’s called atmospheric ablation. And we’re now finding that the alumina deposits etc. And that ablation is, is actually now slowly coming down and going into marine life. And that toxicities is coming. It’s coming earthward but no one has really done the studies of deorbiting hundreds of satellites. So could we find a safe graveyard orbits in Leo Leo is 2000 kilometres or about 1200 miles or lower? A bit, we could then do active debris removal, as long as there’s not too much there because you still need to get up to Geo and Meo etc. I think it’s worth looking at and actually properly assessing the feasibility of this. At the same time as we look at that atmospheric ablation and the the problem of deorbiting large numbers of satellites. There was another hand over at this side. Yes. Thank you.

Audience member  54:46

Hi, my name is Tristan as a question for Joanne. Do you think this is something we could have international legislation on? And if so, who would enforce it and how would it be enforced?

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  54:59

So as you’ve heard heard also from Max tonight that we have international treaties, resolutions, etc. But no international law. And let me give you a quick anecdote I used to work at the European Space Agency. And this was the year after the Columbia shuttle had re entered, and it was not it disintegrated in launch. And a year after we’re working with NASA, and my boss jumped out the meeting and phoned me up and said, Don’t Don’t think about this too much. I need an answer. Now. We need there are problems about the deorbiting of the the next shuttle, could we jettison the fridge to get rid of mass and to reenter safely. Now clearly, human life takes precedence over everything. But are there any environmental international laws that would deal with the jesting of a large fridge? I didn’t ask if there was gin and tonic in it or anything like that. But we used environment, international environmental law, nothing to do with space law, to look at the pros and cons of this. But fundamentally, the life of the site of the astronauts was more important than anything else. This is what we’re looking at standards, because standards can fit in holes of where international law does not exist, and where law is does not exist. And also standards can deal with the issue of international law not being provided and implemented homogenously across the world. And states, as you probably know, are liable and responsible for everything that they launch into space. But not all states could be classed as responsible states, because not all of them have the capabilities and the training and the skills that they may need to actually make those decisions. And implementing an objective standard is usually helpful. So standards can be implemented quite quickly, while we look at international treaties. And we held our first space sustainability conference in 2001 in London held by Inmarsat, and we looked at an international treaty. And I have to be honest, by 2024, I thought we would have had an international treaty, we don’t and it’s 10 plus years in advance. So the standards actually provide a stop gap that can be identified by industry, finance and insurance.

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  57:20

Some ways, other lawyers have said to me that behaviour doesn’t follow laws, the laws follow behaviour. So you got to change the culture first. And then the laws will follow. Would you agree with that, Joanne? Yeah, but

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  57:34

I think we need to incentivize, and I think we can incentivize right behaviour law will follow. But law takes a long time, particularly international level, that UN level takes a long time. So let’s start incentivizing the right behaviour. Question just the lady there with her hands to lock. Thank you. And Hannah, please let us know if there’s any questions online. Thank you.

Audience member  57:58

Hello, thank you. So from your various talks, I’ve perhaps incorrectly so this is a statement question. surmise that the worst case scenario here is that we have one of those Did you call them a Kepler event? Kessler, wherever thing impacts everything else, and you end up sort of clogging up the orbits, and then you can’t really launch anything or get people off the earth either either for human spaceflight. And one of the possible best case scenarios is that instead of burning up the remaining satellites, through reentry, you could actually recycle them. Is that Is that what you’ve been? sort of saying? If you could,

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  58:51

yeah, if possible, reuse rather than recycle. Same as on Earth, by the way, you know, re reuse is what you want. I would say the thing about the Kessler syndrome is that people think of it as a kind of sudden catastrophic thing can Okay, okay, okay, bang. It’s not it’s more like the famous boiling the frog thing. We’re in it now. It’s developing slowly, and things are getting worse and worse. And it’s a question of knowing when do you say that’s too bad? We got to stop. But so it’s it’s not a single event. It’s a it’s an ongoing unfolding of things just getting worse and worse. Absolutely.

Audience member  59:29

But the ultimate sort of threshold you like is that you would no longer really be able to use space for any of the things we’re currently using it for.

Max Alexander  59:42

Certain orbits could become unusable at certain altitudes. Okay. Perhaps we should I made that point in the talk.

Audience member  59:49

No, that makes sense. So one last question, and then I’ll hand it back is if trying to get what’s the biggest aside from cost, I suppose What’s the biggest delay in getting companies and governments to adopt changes that would be beneficial here?

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  1:00:13

I think I think we go back to what Joanne just said, just now is some incentivizing, you got to think what? Why would they want to do this? Because they’re all desperately competing with each other. People want to make money. So how do you make it in their interest to do good things? So there are many, obviously, many good people in the space industry whose instincts are good, but they still worry about, you know, they’re the bottom line. So it’s how do we Yeah, money.

Max Alexander  1:00:46

But it’s perhaps an opportunity as well, because people in the space sector, they’re monitoring the health of the planet, and they understand it’s critical thinking and science. So actually, they’re an informed audience. Maybe I’ve got rose tinted glasses on, but here and in Scotland, with us the sustainability roadmap, there’s actually an opportunity in Scotland to be a world leader. And in the future satellites will be mandated have certain features, when they invented, the motorcar eventually was a seatbelt and a plane there have features on planes. So there’ll be an economic opportunity for the first adopters for when those new standards come to come through in Scotland an amazing place to position to do that.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  1:01:23

I agree, we are seeing a race to the top where operators now seeking out regulators and a licence that takes sustainability seriously. We’ve seen companies to be very open leave the UK for various regulatory reasons, usually radio frequency spectrum, and coming back to licence because they can get market access. If they get a licence from here, they can then supply and provide services in other countries. i That’s a gigantic incentive, if there’s that recognition of the UK licence. And if you link that with money talks, and the availability of insurance, you’ve got a powerful mechanism. Another chance for another question. One at the front. Thank you. Is just a question here a second

Audience member  1:02:19

Peter Black Astronautical Society of Edinburgh. coming at it from another way, one of the things you mentioned, and it was, you know, less launches would be a good idea. Other technologies on the horizon that would allow a lot of companies that are trained to smother the earth with communications, that would allow them to have a lot less luxuries like 10%?

Professor Andy Lawrence FRSE  1:02:48

Well, I think it comes back to regulation versus incentivization. So there’s not much sign of the US or the UK sort of putting a cap on launches, you know, a dream of that, but doesn’t look like as it’s gonna happen. So you have to somehow make it in their interest. Not not to do this. So, yeah, sorry, I don’t know the answer to that.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  1:03:18

And actually, I think we might want to encourage the UK the Scottish launch industry. Hanoch. Do we have time for one question right in the middle of the room? Thank you.

Audience member  1:03:26

I totally lay the question. Since it takes so long to organise things and get the world to agree to things. Have you thought further afield? What we’re going to do about the moon? And all the rubbish that goes there? And should it be like going up Ben Nevis that you bring your rubbish home?

Max Alexander  1:03:54

Because there are 30 pieces of debris trapped around the moon today. So that’s not that many, but it’s the start. And of course, there’s no atmosphere on the Moon. So just kind of crash land and won’t burn up as such. So that is a thing. There’s a lot of people working on this already. It’s the cislunar economy. I think they call it the, between the Earth and the Moon. And so that is a thing, and it’s coming, a lot of people already working on it. Good question.

Professor Joanne Wheeler, MBE  1:04:21

Thank you. I think we need to wrap up now. I really appreciate you all attending in person. I’d very much appreciate those of you online. Thank you for staying with us. Thank you for your engagement. Thank you for your questions. And please keep looking up and maybe see you in 25 years time here, and we can discuss the turning point that we’ve had. But thank you very much for being with us today.

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