Space – the final EIA frontier?

9th February 2017

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Ross Day

Steve Mustow considers whether space exploration and exploitation require impact assessments

Sixty years after the Soviets blasted the pioneering Sputnik satellite into orbit around Earth, it is clear that humankind’s space mission is far from accomplished. If anything, it seems to be gathering pace as NASA’s Juno probe sends back information about Jupiter, the joint European and Russian ExoMars searches for evidence of life on Mars, and the European Space Agency digests the information about Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko courtesy of its Rosetta craft.

Amid this is a private sector that is increasingly attracted to the exploitation of space. SpaceX, the US aerospace manufacturer owned by business magnate Elon Musk, has completed several missions, among them sending a craft to resupply cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). The company is also working on a reusable launch system and recently announced its intent to develop interplanetary transport that could be used to colonise Mars within several decades.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has plans to develop spacecraft for suborbital and orbital missions, including for tourist spaceflights. Meanwhile, companies such as Moon Express, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are about to undertake exploration activities as a precursor to potential mining of the moon and asteroids. However, little consideration has been given to the potential environmental impacts of these activities on what is pristine wilderness.

Legal protections

The legal framework on the use of space is weak, particularly from an environmental perspective, and there is little guidance on assessing the environmental impacts (EIA). Five UN treaties adopted in the 1960s and 1970s cover space activities. None specifically covers environmental assessment, although the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 holds that what lies beyond Earth is ‘the province of all mankind’ and that ‘the moon and other celestial bodies shall be free for exploration and use’. The UN Moon Agreement of 1979 states that lunar resources are the ‘common heritage of mankind’.

The legislation of some space-faring nations covers EIA of space activities, such as the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NASA policy also requires assessments for debris generation potential and debris mitigation options, and the US has other safety procedures when nuclear power sources are launched into space. But, in general, environmental assessment is not treated as a key issue among space-faring nations even if a mechanism for this is incorporated in legislation and policy.

The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act 2015 enables exploitation by granting American citizens and companies ownership of materials they can extract from extraterrestrial bodies. It addresses safety but makes no reference to environmental protection.

Exploration and exploitation

EIA procedures for space activities would require adaptation from those used on Earth and would have to consider the impacts to the launch site and surrounding area, the wider global environment, and the region of space where the activities take place.

The environmental topics covered by the EU EIA Directive 2014 (2014/52/EU) are used here as a basis for the discussion. This is because many of the impacts associated with the construction and operation of launch sites are similar to those associated with developments, such as industrial plants and airfields.

Population and human health – There are risks associated with space launches, including the potential for accidents, resulting in explosions and debris falling to Earth. For that reason, launch pads are usually sited away from human settlements and flight trajectories routed over areas with sparse populations. Risks from Earth orbital missions relate primarily to space debris re-entering the atmosphere and landing in populated areas.

In addition, there are radiological contamination risks from the nuclear power sources that are often used in spacecraft, with consequences for human health and ecological systems. The creation of orbital space debris also increases risks to human populations in orbit around Earth. Those populations now consist of a small number of astronauts on space stations, but in future these could increase, not to mention the presence of humans on other planets, their moons or on asteroids.

Biodiversity – Risks to biodiversity arise from the potential for debris to fall to Earth, particularly if it includes radioactive material. There is limited risk to biodiversity when craft circle the Earth, although there is evidence that microbes are present in layers of the atmosphere relatively close to lower levels where satellites orbit.

However, the risks become apparent on more adventurous missions, particularly to planets such as Mars that may sustain life now or might have done in the past. The hazards relate to introducing microbes from space vehicles already contaminated on Earth. If these species are capable of surviving and reproducing on the new planet or moon they could start to colonise it, confounding attempts to discover whether life already existed there.

Also, if life does already exist, the introduced species might compete with it. Planetary protection protocols are therefore put in place on missions to other planets, involving practices such as sterilising equipment before launch. As space missions become larger in scale, exercises such as mining could remove a habitat and destroy forms of life, should they exist. Similarly, if extraterrestrial microbial life was brought to Earth this could cause impacts if released into the wild.

Land – Given that to date there are no human settlements on other members of the solar system, land take is not an issue and the availability could be viewed as unlimited. However, if the exploitation of space gathers pace, this may change, sparking competition for uses such as human settlement, mining and protective ‘greenhouses’ for growing food.

Geology and soil – Like on Earth, soil could prove a key resource for human settlers. Careful environmental assessment of new activities and developments will therefore be required to determine the potential to deplete it through contamination or excavation. Geological resources are likely to be important not just as sources of raw materials, but also in terms of what they reveal about the history of the planet itself. In some cases, they may be important on a larger scale, perhaps for understanding the development of the universe itself.

Water – The availability of water will be a fundamental constraint in human exploitation of space, so finding sources will be a high priority. Evidence already points to there being water on Mars, most likely frozen but possibly also in liquid form. The potential effects on the water environment will therefore be a key consideration in EIA of projects affecting planets that have or may have reserves.

However, these may be very limited so any activities that deplete or contaminate the resources are likely to have far-reaching effects. In some cases, vast quantities of water may be found, such as on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where liquid seas may exist under a surface layer of ice. It may therefore be necessary to assess water quality, hydrology and hydrogeology as we do on Earth.

Air – Waste products from space launches depend on the type of propellant used in the rocket motors and can range from water vapour to harmful hydrochloric acid (HCl), nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and soot. This is something to bear in mind given the damage caused to vegetation and aquatic life near the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, due to the HCl produced from space shuttle launches.

Although other planets and their moons do not have ‘air’, some have atmospheres or exospheres (extremely thin atmospheres), that of Mars being about 100 times thinner than Earth’s and 95% carbon dioxide. Industrial activities that release gaseous or particulate pollution would have an effect on these atmospheres, as would action to make them more suitable for human habitation.

Climate – Emissions from space launches have the capacity to affect climate change and exacerbate ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere. HCl is a concern because chlorine bonds with ozone, and other reactive exhaust gases can also break down this protective layer. In addition, the cumulative effects of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and soot emissions are linked with climate change. The infrequency of space launches renders these as insignificant now but any increase in activity may change this. In relation to other planets, human activities could alter their atmospheres and hence their climates.

Material assets and natural resources – Space exploration is a relatively recent phenomenon, but already it has the potential to ‘sterilise’ material assets as debris accumulates in Earth’s orbit. Due to the relative velocities at which debris and spacecraft travel in orbit, even small pieces of debris can be highly destructive. Further afield, developments on planets might disrupt or sterilise economically important mineral or water resources.

The use of natural resources will require detailed management and assessment since some may be in limited supply and difficult or impossible to transport. As well as water and soil, other examples may include metals and minerals. The effects on energy resources would depend on the type of resources used. Presently solar, nuclear and chemical energy sources are important in space exploration, but in future other sources may be developed, with geothermal energy a possibility on Mars.

Cultural heritage – Space debris needs to be considered in relation to its cultural heritage value. Into this category would fall some of the debris still orbiting Earth as remnants of the first ventures by humans beyond the planet. Also, material left on other bodies from previous exploration will have heritage value, from the modules and commemorative objects left on the moon to the Rosetta probe and Philae lander which were recently landed on to Comet 67P.

Landscape and visual impacts – The creation of a spaceport involves introducing tall structures, including the vehicles themselves, as well as other infrastructure such as launch pads, buildings and access roads. There is therefore potential for landscape and visual impacts to arise. The landscapes of Mars and the moon are more or less pristine, with initial space exploration activities having had negligible impact. Plans are being made to prospect for and then mine valuable minerals, which could change the landscapes significantly.

If human populations are present in future, visual impacts would also arise. This would also be so should large structures be sent into orbit. These would be clearly visible from Earth, particularly when reflecting sunlight; already orbiting satellites can be seen by the naked eye at night and the ISS can sometimes appear as bright as the planet Venus.

Residues, emissions and waste – As well as the radiological contamination and rocket exhaust emissions associated with launches, noise and vibration are issues too, with take-offs commonly heard several kilometres away. Some types of launches cause sonic booms and noise also arises from aircraft used for transportation and training. Launch stages are often jettisoned over the ocean, although in some cases they are recovered. When abandoned they are left to sink to the ocean floor, leaving the risk of localised pollution from residual propellant.

Pollution and nuisances also have the potential to arise from space activities in the orbital environment and beyond. The potential for significant effects will depend on the nature of the pollution and the presence or otherwise of human or biological receptors. The effects of activities on lifeless planets without a human presence may be negligible unless the pollution is long-lasting and affects future settlers. Pollutants may well be different from those that are commonly encountered on Earth and would be likely to have different impacts and follow different pathways.

Once exploitation of resources deeper into space occurs, particularly involving human settlement, greater consideration of the disposal and recovery of waste will be needed. This will be required to conserve and reuse finite resources, but should also be linked to protection of the space environment.

The way forward

Some areas of EIA for space exploration and exploitation are similar to those for Earth-based assessments, while other areas are more complicated and uncertain. One is that EIA of space activities will involve consideration of transboundary effects because the activities take place beyond national boundaries and risks posed by falling debris and atmospheric impacts extend beyond host country borders.

And, given the extreme and isolated nature of space it is difficult to mitigate environmental effects once they have arisen and to remove waste caused by human activity. Efforts will be hampered further by the significant deficiencies in knowledge of the space environment, while it may be difficult to obtain information to use in an EIA because space exploration is highly commercial and militarised.

Although some of these scenarios would arise far in the future, if at all, it nevertheless remains important that an international legislative framework for EIA of space activities is developed, alongside standardised protocols for assessing environmental effects.

The Antarctic Treaty, which includes a protocol for environmental protection, would be a good template for the space environment. Like space, the Antarctic is a pristine environment and regarded as the property of all humanity. Treaties to protect the oceans are relevant, given their transboundary nature, as are EIA techniques that have been developed for exploitation of the deep ocean, given that they relate to projects in an extreme environment with limited baseline data.

The space-faring nations and companies with ambitions beyond Earth all have development programmes. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a valid tool, which should be promoted for evaluating the effects of these programmes and developing mitigation before EIA is undertaken.

Given the likely advances in space exploration and exploitation over the next few decades it is important that environment professionals become more engaged and work with the relevant bodies to develop robust safeguards.

Steve Mustow is a senior director at WYG. The consultancy’s experience in this area includes a feasibility study for a proposed spaceport, which considered a range of environmental issues. WYG is a member of IEMA’s EIA Quality Mark scheme.

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