Interview with Simonetta Di Pippo, former director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
Simonetta Di Pippo is the former director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). She was also Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency and Director of Universe Observation at the Italian Space Agency.
We often hear the word “sustainability” in the context of environmental protection on Earth. Could you define “space sustainability” for our readers? How is sustainability in space different from sustainability on Earth?
We do not have a codified, unified and accepted description of what we mean by
“sustainability.” But, I can say this: The space sector is really evolving, the number of launches per year is doubling every year. Last year we went nearly 2,000 satellites. The previous year was 1,260. And the year before, half. We see the presence of mega-constellations, which have thousands and thousands of satellites – for example, Starlink from Elon Musk’s approach to connectivity. We have many more constellations coming, like OneWeb, for example, as well as other constellations from China, etc.
The fact is that the number of satellites in orbit is increasing, which is good on the one hand because it means that space becomes an asset to improve the quality of life on Earth. We all often think of space as something far removed from us and what we do on Earth, but that’s not true at all. In many things that we do during the day, we use satellites, sometimes more than one at the same time, for example, for geolocation, navigation, etc., and for precise location. That said, it is clear that developing and emerging countries also want to start being part of this process. With mega-constellations, the fact that the private sector is becoming more and more important to provide services and applications, that governments are more and more interested in using space for critical infrastructure for government-related matters , means we can’t stop throwing. We can only deal with this problem.
On top of that, this development brings with it the increase of space debris, or junk in orbit. It creates a lot of problems because if you’re a space operator, if you have venture capitalists backing your business plan, you want to have your assets in orbit, stable. You want an environment that allows you to move forward with your business model. So you need a stable space environment, which means that sustainability is not just a matter of keeping the space environment clean, of preserving space as a global commons for you and for future generations, but also to enable space operators in the commercial sector to have a safe, secure and stable space environment. This means that the long-term sustainability of space activities is essential for life on Earth. That’s the point. Everything is connected. We cannot stop, and we do not want to stop, the increasing use of space resources to improve the quality of life on Earth. But to do that, we need stability. We need predictability. So we need sustainability, long-term sustainability in orbit to sustain the space economy. That’s more or less the situation, which is quite fascinating because it’s putting all the pieces together.
What do you think is the biggest threat to the sustainability of space?
Well, there are a few issues. The first is that we need to increase awareness of the importance, especially for new players, that when they start their operations in orbit, they really start them with a responsible approach, with responsible operations and responsible behavior . It is extremely important. This is where UNOOSA plays an important role in raising awareness, building capacity, especially with emerging and developing countries, and also collecting best practices and lessons learned from top-spending countries on space because they have the most satellites in orbit. .
Therefore, we can learn a lot – we are the space community – and we can help a developing and emerging country to benefit. So, this is international cooperation at its best because very often, UNOOSA does activities with developing and emerging countries using data that is provided by space assets belonging to a limited number of countries. It’s extremely interesting because it’s also related to the fact that an action in space done by a player can have a lot of impact on other players, so the space environment is really a place where you have to cooperate. Otherwise, it cannot be managed.
Some have argued that space debris could trigger a conflict if it crashes into a satellite and a country mistakenly perceives the collision as an attack. Would you say such a scenario is likely? If so, how can the international community prevent debris-related conflicts?
This subject falls under what we call “space traffic management” or “space traffic coordination”. Obviously, there is a need to track satellites and have what we call “space situational awareness”, which is usually done at the national level. So what the Office for Outer Space Affairs of the United Nations recommends is to have a mechanism that allows the coordination of all space traffic, which is increasing.
There is an important document, which was issued by the UN Secretary-General in September last year, called “Our Common Agenda”. This common agenda will lead to a major summit in September 2023 called Future Summit, and one of the seven high-level components of the Future Summit is space, in particular: space traffic management and global governance of space activities . So there is a lot of discussion, both in Vienna and in New York. In New York, you represented the full spectrum of the 193 Member States in the General Assembly. The combination of the activities in Vienna, more from a substantive point of view, and the political discussion in New York will hopefully bring political agreement on how to deal with space traffic management.
Of all your work in the space industry, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Well, I have to say I’m getting older, which means I’m experienced — I’m over 35 years in the business now. I’m really proud of a lot of accomplishments in different ways. Before becoming Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs, I worked at the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. In these roles, I dealt more with international cooperation at the bilateral, trilateral and also multilateral levels. But still, the main work consisted in setting up new programs, generally large programs, either the contribution to the International Space Station, or large scientific missions in the solar system, etc. It was a completely different perspective than the director of the Office of Outer Space which comes up because the role of the director of UNOOSA is on the operations side, so what UNOOSA does with space assets in orbit to improve the quality of life on Earth. So it’s an interesting combination in my life, where I had the opportunity to look at issues at the national level when I was at the Italian Space Agency, at the regional level when I was at the European Space Agency , then at the global level, and also look at space from different angles. It’s probably a privilege because it allowed me to really see the big picture. And it’s not so easy to have a combination of technical, scientific, diplomatic skills. So I’m pretty proud of what’s happened so far.
I hope I can continue to advocate for space as a key tool for sustainability, also on Earth, because one of the important points is that space is really a key tool also to help Member States achieve their goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In September 2015, the UN endorsed this bold agenda, which states that by 2030 we should be able to achieve many goals under the umbrella of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which range from from poverty eradication to land use, from justice to smart cities, from climate action to quality education. It’s very wide. These are really the main issues, the main challenges of humanity right now.
I believe that space is a good accelerator to help Member States achieve these goals. UNOOSA carried out a study in collaboration with the GSA – the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) Space Agency – therefore the European Union Space Agency. A few years ago they combined data from Copernicus, which is Europe’s observation program, and Galileo, which is the GNSS program. They analyzed the 169 targets that underpin the 17 SDGs and found that more than 40% of these targets can only be achieved if we use space as a tool to achieve them. If we add satellite communications, we can easily exceed 50%. It’s a huge number. Without space, more or less, you can’t do anything. That’s really why I advocate, whenever I can, for the importance of space, also for sustainability on Earth, as absolutely mandatory.
Young spoke with Director Di Pippo on March 1, 2022. The interview was conducted before Director Di Pippo left her position as Director of UNOOSA. The interview has been edited slightly to reflect this change, as well as for length and clarity.