Under the magnifying glass: How sustainable is space travel?

When you think of sustainability and space travel, you probably first think of the 130 million small parts that orbit the earth as space debris. Or the 640 tons of CO2 that end up in the atmosphere per (attempted) rocket launch. The theme of the Science Year 2023 is "Our Universe" and asks, among other things, the question: "What does the future of our planet look like and how can we protect our habitat?". The answer: by paying attention to sustainability in all areas, including when exploring this universe.

A colorful graphic showing planets, rockets, satellites, comets and stars. A small astronaut is also floating on the right.

Space travel is currently not particularly sustainable in many areas, as it causes a large number of environmental pollution. Here are some reasons why:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: The rocket launches and landings cause large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, the rocket kerosene used as fuel releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, soot particles and other pollutants when burned.
  • Resource Consumption: Crafting rockets and spacecraft requires a variety of materials and resources. Rare earths and other metals in particular are required for the manufacture of electronics and other components used in space travel. Mining and quarrying these materials can lead to environmental degradation and social problems.
  • space junk: Space travel has also contributed to the fact that more and more junk is being created in space. Obsolete satellites and rocket parts are often left in orbit and can cause collisions, which in turn create more debris.

However, there are also efforts to make space travel more sustainable. An example is the development of reusable rockets and spacecraft to reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. There are also initiatives to clean up space debris and promote responsible use of space.

Sustainability - more than just environmental protection

At first glance, space travel is not yet particularly sustainable. However, the work of researchers in space organizations is what makes many sustainable developments possible in the first place: from observing the atmosphere and climate to access to the internet in rural regions to the development of new materials and better energy storage. We need space travel to become more sustainable in many areas.

Sustainability is a concept that refers to the ability to meet human needs in harmony with natural resources and the environment, without compromising the needs of future generations.

Environmental protection is an important part of sustainability. But sustainability is about more than just protecting the environment. It is also about promoting social justice and economic stability.

The graphic shows the planet Earth around which plants sprout. Three people take care of the plants and the planet. Windmills stand in the background, and a few birds sit at the feet of the people.

In terms of social justice, sustainability means that all people should have access to basic needs such as food, water, health care, education and decent housing. It is about making sure that nobody is disadvantaged because of their origin, their gender or their economic situation.

In terms of economic stability, sustainability means that we should create an economy that is viable over the long term. This means that we should build economies that are geared not only to short-term gains, but also to long-term sustainability and stability.

An important aspect of sustainability is also the promotion of cultural diversity and cultural heritage. This includes recognizing and valuing different cultures and traditions and promoting respectful interaction with them.

The SDGs exist to achieve sustainability at all these levels and to measure progress.

What are the SDGs?

The "Sustainable Development Goals“, in short: SDGs, are the goals for sustainable development that the United Nations adopted in 2015. The aim is to create a better future for all people and the planet. The SDGs aim to help end poverty, protect the environment, fight climate change, improve health and education, reduce inequalities and build a more peaceful and just world. By achieving these goals, we can ensure that we leave behind a better world for ourselves and for future generations.

The graphic shows the Sustainable Development Goals logo: a circle of colored blocks representing the different goals. Below that is "The Global Goals".

ESA and sustainability

The aspects in which space travel can very well be sustainable are illustrated using the example of the European Space Agency (ESA) clearly. She has listed all her projects that contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. We took a closer look at four of the 17 goals. zdi.NRW can also identify with these goals and would like to contribute to achieving them.

4. Quality education: Promote equitable and quality education for all.

This SDG calls for equal access for all people to affordable and high-quality technical, vocational and higher education. It is important to design future-oriented educational offers that enable people to help shape changes and challenges: In other words, not only knowing theoretical knowledge, but also trying out this knowledge in practice and developing it further.

The ESA has with esa kids created a platform where the youngest can deal with topics related to space. Videos, mini-games and experiments explain in a playful way and in six languages ​​how astronauts keep fit in the space station, what a black hole is, or how to collect space debris. In Germany, the ESA and the DLR (German Aerospace Center) are cooperating ESERO Germany bringing space into the classroom.

The zdi community is also committed to equal education. An example of this is the zdi-BSO-MINT courses, which are offered by zdi actors throughout NRW and via the zdi community platform can be booked. Among other things, this carries Breaking down language barriers contribute to educational equity.

5. Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.

The sustainability goal of gender equality aims to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. Access to economic and natural resources should be guaranteed regardless of gender. Equal participation and equal opportunities for women when taking on leadership roles at all levels of decision-making and in all areas of society are also required. 

Physics, engineering, chemistry, medicine - becoming an astronaut means being an all-round scientist. Those who do not want to travel into space themselves can contribute the relevant MINT expertise in researching black holes or in the development of systems that filter CO2 from the air. It is precisely this interdisciplinarity and application orientation that makes space travel so interesting for many young women. They explain why women at ESA chose STEM here .

While zdi courses have a stable proportion of girls at around 45 percent, women are still underrepresented in STEM courses at 34,5 percent (as of 2021). In order to change that and to strengthen girls' enthusiasm for STEM, every year in October we focus on girls and young women with the zdi heroines October. Together with schoolgirls we also last year 6 tips for STEM girls work

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Promote infrastructure and innovation to achieve sustainable industrialization.

The graphic stands for SDG 9 "Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure". It features white, stacked building blocks on an orange background.

This sustainability goal calls for sustainable and resilient infrastructures. It also addresses industries that establish environmentally compatible processes, use resources efficiently and in cycles and use or develop clean technologies. SDG 9 calls for a corresponding improvement in scientific research and the promotion of innovations. 

ESA is very active here, especially in the area of ​​infrastructure. With various satellites, she monitors and measures the space weather in order to be able to make predictions – for example solar storms. Space weather can cause damage and disruption to power distribution networks, increased corrosion of pipelines, and disruption to radio communications. It also uses the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) to monitor rail traffic in Europe and, together with its partners, enables people in the most remote corners of Africa to transfer or withdraw money in small financial offices that are connected via satellite.

zdi stands for "future through innovation". So it is obvious which area of ​​the zdi community is very important. The latest technologies and research topics such as quantum computers, hydrogen drives, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, AI or VR are taken up in the offers of the zdi networks and student laboratories. Each year there is also a new focus topic. This year it is Sustainable energy management.

17. Partnerships to achieve the Goals: Achieving the Goals requires global partnerships and collaboration between governments, civil society and the private sector.

The graphic stands for SDG 17 "Partnerships to achieve the goals". It shows five white intertwined circles on a dark blue background.

Environmental policy is involved in international partnerships, within which there is room for mutual understanding, exchange of experience and knowledge transfer, and concrete projects and permanent structures of cooperation are supported. Only if we work together on the other 16 SDGs do we have a chance of implementing them.

ESA would not exist without strong partnerships. In addition to the 22 member states and the five associated member states, ESA cooperates with four other countries on numerous projects and works with other space organizations such as NASA, and with various universities, research institutes and companies.

Without partnerships, the zdi community would never have grown as big as it is today. With over 5.000 partnerships with stakeholders such as universities, business development agencies, companies, clubs, schools and ministries, zdi.NRW is Europe's largest network for promoting young STEM students. The exchange of experience and knowledge transfer between the zdi actors is an important part of the zdi community. You can find out more about the zdi networks and student laboratories here:

More sustainability in space travel

Of course, the work of the ESA also contributes to the achievement of the other SDGs. Here is a small selection of the SDGs with the associated subject areas with which they ensure more sustainability.

The graphic stands for SDG 6 "Clean water and sanitation". It shows a white glass of water with an arrow pointing down on a light blue background.
  • recycling of water
  • closed circulatory systems
  • Water quality monitoring
The graphic stands for Sustainable Development Goal 7 "Affordable and clean energy". It features a white sun with an on/off icon in the center on a yellow background.
  • solar power
  • energy research
The graphic stands for Sustainable Development Goal 11 "Sustainable Cities and Communities". It shows the white silhouette of a city on a light orange background.
  • Life on the ISS/Concordia
  • air quality
  • traffic systems
The graphic stands for the sustainability goal 12 "Responsible consumption and production". It shows a white infinity symbol on a light brown background.
  • recycling
  • closed circulatory systems
The graphic stands for the sustainability goal 13 "measures for climate protection". It shows a white eye whose iris and pupil are the earth, on a dark green background.
  • Research in the Arctic/Antarctic
  • monitoring of the ice sheets
  • Climate change initiative
  • desertification
The graphic stands for the sustainability goal 14 "Life under water". It shows a white fish among white waves on a light blue background.
  • Tracking marine animals with satellites
  • Sustainable Fishing
  • Soil moisture and ocean salinity
The graphic stands for SDG 15 "Life on Land". It shows a white tree on ground; white birds fly next to the tree on a light green background.
  • forestry/deforestation
  • Biological Diversity
  • Land use detection
  • Forest fires


More on how ESA is contributing to the achievement of the SDGs: ESA and the Sustainable Development Goals

More information about the SDGs in general can be found here: THE 17 GOALS and Goals for Sustainable Development – ​​Agenda 2030 of the UN (17TARGETS.de)

Science Year 2023 - Our Universe - BMBF

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