Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), tells us more about the evolution of the space industry and discusses its impact on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
How – and why – have outer space activities developed so much in the last years? Which specific technologies notably allowed this development?
In the last decades, our world – and especially the space sector – has experienced vast changes. Cheaper launching facilities and options, increasingly compact technology that makes it possible to pack vast potential into smaller devices, a higher appetite for space exploration worldwide, in combination with economic growth and rapid innovation, have led to a boom in the space sector. New actors, including private companies, are increasingly participating in space activities, with more and more ambitious targets.
The use of space technologies in our everyday life is also constantly increasing. Nowadays, there is a massive use of space data on Earth – mobile phones, internet, GNSS devices and TV are possible only thanks to space technologies. This increasing range and volume of uses encourages the development of ever smaller satellites, cheaper and easier to launch, and more and more private companies are investing in developing these technologies.
Remote sensing applications are also rapidly evolving, as are their uses: for example, Earth observation satellites provide us with increasingly more accurate and more detailed images, which open up new ways to use space-related data, in particular for sustainable development, for example, chiefly, in the fight against climate change.
UNOOSA often advocates for greater use of space for sustainable development.
How can space actually help building a more sustainable economy?
Space technologies and data are fundamental for achieving the SDGs: they provide real-time, homogenous information from any location, including remote areas, upon which strategic policymaking decisions can be based; and they are essential for monitoring progress against the SDGs.
A recent study conducted by UNOOSA and the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) found that the use of space European Global Navigation Satellite Systems (EGNSS) and Copernicus applications deliver direct benefits to almost 40 per cent of the 169 targets of the SDGs. If we were to add telecommunications, which are dependent on space, this percentage would increase substantially.
Monitoring climate change and pollution, supporting sustainable agriculture, increasing productivity and promoting industrialization through advancements in research and technology, bringing education to remote areas, supporting the transition to clean energy, improving the monitoring and management of water resources and enabling smart cities and transportation are only a few of many ways in which space activities support the SDGs.
Space supports all the SDGs, and the work of UNOOSA touches on all of the Goals. I can highlight in particular, as examples, our work on SDGs 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 17.
For instance, on SDG 4, quality education, UNOOSA offers fellowships on space-related topics; provides advisory services to space agencies and research institutions in developing countries to expand their knowledge of space applications; organizes international conferences and workshops on space technologies; and provides online educational resources and directories of educational opportunities on space topics.
On SDG 5, gender equality, UNOOSA works to increase access and opportunities for women in the space and STEM sectors through the Space4Women project. The project promotes a global “Space4Women Champions” network, linking young women with positive female role models who can advise and guide them throughout their career journey from education to occupation in STEM sectors.
On SDG 6, clean water and sanitation, UNOOSA works with the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW) to collaborate on promoting the use of space-based technology for increased access to water. Together with PSIPW,
in 2018 UNOOSA launched the Space4Water Portal. which provides information on projects, initiatives, community portals, training material, conferences and publications in the space and water sectors and on their linkages.
The information is categorized and shared publicly in a user-friendly format, and readers are invited to submit guest articles. The portal is a one-stop shop that enables developing countries in particular to expand and better leverage their range of space-related tools to support the management of water resources.
On SDGs 8 and 9, decent work and economic growth and industry, innovation and infrastructure, space can bring significant benefits through the expanding space economy, which promotes economic growth and quality employment worldwide, as well as fostering technological advances that end up benefiting all sectors of the economy. UNOOSA has partnered with Bocconi University in Milan, and in particular with the Space Economy Evolution Lab (SEE) of the SDA Bocconi School of Management, to explore the potential of the space economy through research and education. This collaboration will include academic courses for training public employees, particularly those in developing countries, on topics related to the space economy. The courses will be provided by SDA Bocconi with the support of UNOOSA. UNOOSA will ensure that the managerial, strategic, economic and financial knowledge of SDA Bocconi reaches the emerging countries interested in entering the space sector.
On SDG 11, sustainable cities and communities, include increasing resilience to disasters. Risk reduction and disaster response, as well as the mapping of diseases and public health emergencies, play a vital role in improving living conditions and the resilience of communities on Earth. By helping developing countries gain access to space-related data for disaster reduction and response, the UN-SPIDER program provides countries with access to the instruments needed to achieve this goal.
On SDG 17, partnerships for the goals, UNOOSA is continuously building innovative partnerships with a number of actors, including governments, space agencies, private sector companies and research institutions, to ensure that people in all countries can access the benefits of space.
Can you tell us more about the collaboration with space agencies from around the world, but also with governments?
UNOOSA works closely with United Nations Member States to foster the peaceful use of outer space, support capacity building and develop national space infrastructures, regulation, research and technology. Through the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its two subcommittees, UNOOSA provides all member states with a unique platform to build cooperation in outer space on topics ranging from space debris mitigation to space traffic management and space exploration projects.
By leveraging the knowledge and abilities of various partners, the Office aims to bring the benefits of space to everyone, everywhere. This often happens through triangular approaches, as under the Access for Space for All Initiative. Through this initiative, UNOOSA helps space-faring nations support non-space faring nations in developing their space technology and research. The KiboCUBE project, a collaboration between UNOOSA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is an example of such a collaboration. KiboCUBE enables developing countries to launch a satellite from JAXA’s module on the International Space Station (ISS) free of cost. This is the project that made it possible for Kenya to develop and deploy their first satellite, and Kenya will soon be joined by other winners of this incredible opportunity.
As another example of our work with space agencies, in partnership with the China Manned Space Agency, UNOOSA provides provide institutions from Member States, in particular countries with limited or no space capabilities, with the opportunity to fly experiments onboard the China Space Station, which is expected to be operational by 2022. The collaboration aims to build the capacity to use human space flight technologies, including facilities and resources from China’s human spaceflight program, and promote awareness of the benefits of utilizing human space technology and its applications. The year 2018 saw the first announcement of opportunity, for which 42 applications for space experiments on board the China Space Station were received.
We also work directly with governments to increase their capacity to leverage space technology for disaster risk reduction: for example, we provide technical advisory and institutional strengthening missions to member states to deliver training programs and build capacity on topics such as how to prepare maps of drought indicators, and how to use space technology in the fight against both natural and human-made calamities such as floods, landslides and earthquakes.
UNOOSA is also involved in several education projects aiming at supporting young talents. How important is it for space agencies to promote their activities to students but also to the general population?
Raising awareness on space activities among youth is a very important mission for UNOOSA. The Office achieves this by providing young talents with research opportunities, as well as by engaging the youth on determining the future course of space exploration and international cooperation in space.
The DropTES project, which started in 2013, is an example of the first category of projects: it offers research teams the opportunity to conduct microgravity experiments at the Bremen Drop Tower in Germany. These experiments, which consist of four drops or catapult launches, can build capacity for both hardware and human space missions.
The Space for Youth Competition launched by the Office in 2019 in response to the Youth 2030 Agenda is an example of the second category of initiatives to engage youth with the space sector and in shaping its future. The competition called for young people to make concrete suggestions on how space could contribute to the SDGs, through examples in their communities, and has attracted submissions from young people all over the world. Winning submissions will be featured at COPUOS, providing young winners with a unique global platform to share their ideas.
Space exploration is by nature a long-term, inter-generational pursuit. At UNOOSA, we believe that involving youth in determining the future direction of space policy and exploration is essential for building a better future for humanity beyond the timeline of present leaders.
What are your thoughts on the latest Luxembourgish space initiatives?
Luxembourg is a well-established space actor, with a long legacy of conducting pioneering space activities. As a member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space, Luxembourg works with the entire space community in contributing to the ongoing and dynamic deliberations at the UN level across a whole range of new developments in space policy.
At UNOOSA, our mission is to advance international cooperation in space affairs. Working across the political, legal and technical aspects of such a mission, the chance to collaborate closely with Luxembourg is a welcome opportunity to support these activities as we work to bring the benefits of space to more and more people around the world.
UNOOSA also has an agreement with Asteroid Day Foundation, an awareness and educational program registered in Luxembourg. This Day, declared through a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, is celebrated each year on 30 June to commemorate the largest asteroid impact recorded in recent history, when, on 30 June 1908, a near-Earth Object exploded over Tunguska in Siberia, flattening 2,000 square kilometers of forest. This International Day serves as a reminder of the danger posed by asteroids and as a tool to raise awareness of the need for international cooperation to address this challenge.
Looking at the future, how will space look like in 2030?
In the coming decades, a vast number of impressive space-related endeavors are planned. Both national space agencies and private companies have voiced plans to return humanity to the Moon – and even bring the first humans to Mars. Many of these programs rely heavily on global partnerships, a feature that will only increase in the future, as the complexity and cost of planned projects keep growing. International collaborations, such as the Jams Webb Space telescope or the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, could contribute greatly to an expanded knowledge of space by 2030.
Another important step in the next decades will be the continuous commercialization of Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO), which will open space to the private sector and thereby make it accessible to a much broader public.
UNOOSA will continue its work fostering global cooperation and supporting the UN Member States in their efforts to leverage the benefits of space for all humankind. We believe that the Access to Space 4 All in particular sets the basis for our work in the coming decade: as technologies advance rapidly, making it possible to achieve new frontiers in space exploration, it is particularly important to ensure that the increasing benefits of space reach people everywhere, and not just in those countries that have the means for conducting space exploration. UNOOSA is uniquely placed for bridging the gap between space nations and non-space or emerging space nations and ensuring that the benefits of space reach all of humankind.
The achievement of the SDG is of course the overarching goal for all United Nations offices and agencies in the coming decade: through all the initiatives and partnerships we have built and are continuing to build, we are confident that more and more countries will be able to fully leverage the incredible potential of space technologies and research to make a concrete difference in their path toward the 2030 Goals.