Space Sustainability

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) pertains to the ecological and conservational knowledge held by various indigenous communities. These perspectives can be utilized for near-Earth orbit sustainability.

A more recent example of TEK is with the Australia fires. In this NPR article, Aboriginal Noel Butler discusses the natives’ insight in managing the Australian landscape, which was unfortunately ignored by the government.

Want to learn more? See Dr. Jah’s Hot Science Cool Talk!

The 6 TEK tenets:

1. Factual Observations

The way humans classify the natural world. This includes names, knowledge of animal behavior, and the ecological changes occurring in an environment.

This tenet can be utilized to understand the nature of near-Earth orbit. If we can identify typical features, characteristics, and behaviors amongst near-Earth’s resident space object population, then we can quantify, monitor, and assess the “sources and sinks” of the population as well as its evolution and aging. We look to this tenet to underscore the need of developing a scientific taxonomy and an abductively inferred ontology of this population!

2. Sustainable use of resources

Utilizing natural environments so that space and resources are not depleted. This includes land management, carrying capacities, and interrelationships between an ecosystem.

This tenet can help characterize the carrying capacity of various near-Earth orbital “habitats” to include cislunar space. If we can quantify the carrying capacity of a specific orbit, then we can predict how it may be utilized, when it may become saturated, and effectively manage this capacity, incentivizing behaviors and services which give capacity back.

3. Past and current uses

Typically translated through oral history; the historical pattern for how resources are used in a particular area. This includes the knowledge of medicinal plant location as well as cultural historical sites.

This tenet can be interpreted to explore how near-Earth orbit has changed over the course of generations. If we understand how and why the orbits have changed, then we can assess the impacts (intended and unintended) of human activity on near-Earth orbit and predict its evolution to help us mitigate detrimental operational and environmental outcomes.

4. Ethics and value

Being cognizant of how resources should be used; keeping overexploitation in check.

This tenet can be utilized for near-Earth orbit space policy. If we establish a standard space sustainability metric and value on orbits, respecting a common set of ethics in norms of behavior, then we can extend environmental protection narratives beyond oceans/atmospheres/climates to include near-Earth space. This in turn will help underpin a marketplace and entrepreneurship for space services and capabilities, from Active Debris Removal (ADR) to Satellite Servicing and Recycling, 3rd-Party Liability Insurance on-orbit, etc. We can monitor and assess space actor behaviors against these metrics, values, and norms and bring evidence to the “Public Square” on compliance or lack thereof of any given entity.

5. Cultural relationships

The ever-present tie between cultures and their environments; creates a sense of place.

This tenet ties space sustainability with the preservation of culture. While some may view orbital debris as clutter, others may see it as a cultural monument (e.g. How Americans would see any uncontrolled object in space from the Apollo program), and it is important to maintain international communication to understand what should and should not be removed or purposefully altered/influenced.

6. Cosmology

The philosophy of human’s role in the universe. This explores the spiritual relationship that humans have with everything in the galaxy.

This tenet can be utilized as a philosophical argument about how humans and space are connected, and how there is a spiritual obligation to maintaining the health of near-Earth orbit because we’re all “stardust!”

Current Space Sustainability efforts

COPUOS: The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This committee focuses on regulating the international use of space.

This includes:

  • Space activity supervision; the committee wishes to establish space safety through implementation of radios
  • Long term sustainability
  • Exploration equality

Get Involved

TXSLAPS (Texas Space Law and Policy Society): is a society interested in helping students learn about space policy and space advocacy. Follow @txslaps on Twitter for updates on events, news, and potential internship and job opportunities related to space law.

Visit Secure World Foundation to learn more about Space Sustainability and Space Law and Policy.


The University of Texas at Austin is developing into the “Hogwarts” of Space Research and Education through transdisciplinarity. One example is a focus on solving problems related to space safety, security, and sustainability. To that end, Professor Moriba Jah is engaged in a variety of efforts tied into a unified vision:

  • Director, Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in Astronautics; Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department
  • Program Lead, Space Security and Safety; Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law
  • Director, Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies; Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences
  • Affiliate Faculty, Environmental Sciences Institute
    • Developing a program focused on Space Sustainability
  • Affiliate Faculty, Statistics and Data Science Department


Astriagraph: Illustrates the amount of debris in near-Earth orbit.

  • Disclaimer: Dots do not show the size to scale of the debris.

Conjunction Streaming Service Demo: Illustrates the proximity of debris to the Earth.