Environmental impacts of a satellite mission

For the European Space Agency (ESA), PRé and two other parties did an LCA on a satellite mission. Not only did we provide them with insight to help mitigate environmental impacts, we prepared them to do future LCAs themselves.


Life cycle assessments require a tremendous amount of data. For most LCAs, sustainability experts can draw from specialized databases containing information on raw materials, semi-finished products and other key inputs in the production cycle. But the more unusual and unique a product is, the more difficult it becomes to thoroughly assess its supply chain and life cycle.

PRé was recently part of a consortium asked to do an LCA on a satellite mission for the European Space Agency (ESA). As one can imagine, satellites and the vehicles that carry them into space use very few mass-produced components, making this LCA a unique and interesting project.


The European Space Agency (ESA) is an organization gathering knowledge about the earth, its immediate space environment, our solar system and the universe. It also develops satellite-based technologies and services and promotes European industries. ESA knows how important it is to understand how their activities impact the environment and to minimize these impacts, which is why they started the Clean Space Initiative. Under this initiative, ESA requested a consortium consisting of VITO (The Flemish Institute for Technological Research), PRé Consultants and QinetiQ Space to do an LCA of a satellite mission.

The objective of the study was:

  • To develop a methodological framework for consistently modelling the life cycle of space missions and supporting decision-making at ESA
  • To allow ESA to independently perform LCA studies of its space missions in the near future
  • To identify the environmental hot spots of a space mission from a life cycle perspective


The assessment of the life cycle impacts of space missions can be very challenging. The sector uses many specialist materials and custom-made components with a low product output in relation to the overhead. LCA process databases such as Ecoinvent, commonly used in LCA studies, mainly contain data on standard mass-produced products with a high product output in relation to the overhead.

Therefore, VITO and PRé Consultants decided at the start of the project that the best option would be a hybrid LCA, using both physical and cost data. Physical data are derived from process databases, where the user can select products and processes on the basis of units such as mass or distance. Cost data can be retrieved from Environmentally Extended Input Output (EEIO or IO) databases, describing the sale and purchase relationships between economic sectors (agriculture, industry, services) within an economy and linking them to the environmental flows resulting from these activities. Monetary units such as euros or dollars express the environmental flow per economic sector.

The next step was to use the expertise of QinetiQ Space to gather detailed information on space projects such as materials and man-hours. Then we created a model using the different phases of a space mission: design phases (A & B), production, verification and testing phase (C & D), launch and use phase (E), and disposal phase (F). Different models were created from the process data and IO data. The final product was a database with accompanying manual.


The two main benefits that resulted from this study are:

  • ESA now has insight into different modelling approaches and understands the different results from using process databases and IO databases.
  • ESA can use an LCA database specific to ESA’s activities and projects, containing the different models created during the project. With the accompanying manual, ESA can adapt the models and create their own models for future space missions.

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