An international team of researchers led by the University of Plymouth examined how the increasing number of satellites and space debris in Earth’s orbit could potentially lead to vast areas of Earth’s orbit becoming unusable. They note that while there are only 9000 satellites in Earth orbit today, this number could grow to more than 60,000 by 2030. They compare the use of Earth’s orbit to that of the oceans and plastic pollution and stress the need to take the pollution of both regions seriously.
Dr Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, and lead author of the article. (Credit: Eleanor Burfitt/University of Plymouth)
“The issue of plastic pollution, and many of the other challenges facing our ocean, is now attracting global attention,” said Dr. Imogen Napper, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth and lead author of the article. “However, there has been limited collaborative action and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris. Taking into consideration what we have learnt from the high seas, we can avoid making the same mistakes and work collectively to prevent a tragedy of the commons in space. Without a global agreement we could find ourselves on a similar path.”
The publication of this article comes as the number of rocket launches reached 180 in 2022. SpaceX led the charge at 61 launches last year alone, a new record, and is showing no signs of slowing down. SpaceX, which is the world’s largest private space company, has come under fire for the thousands of Starlink satellites it continues to launch into orbit. These satellites pose risks for collisions, leading to more spaced debris, and how they hinder observational astronomy from the ground.
As stated, the authors compare the use of outer space to how we treat and pollute our oceans, as there are approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the world’s bodies of water today. While this is alarming, the authors also estimate that about 100 trillion pieces of old satellites are in Earth’s orbit right now.
"Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security and Earth itself,” said Melissa Quinn, the Head of Spaceport Cornwall and a co-author of this article. “However, using space to benefit people and planet is at risk. By comparing how we have treated our seas, we can be proactive before we damage the use of space for future generations. Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later. I encourage all leaders to take note, to recognize the significance of this next step and to become jointly accountable."
The authors emphasize we must take immediate action, or else large portions of space in Earth’s orbit could risk the same outcome as ocean pollution, where a lack of oversight has led to the oceanic pollution we see today. This lack of oversight is not limited to plastic pollution, but also includes deep-sea mining exploration, overfishing, and habitat destruction.
“Mirroring the new UN ocean initiative, minimizing the pollution of the lower Earth orbit will allow continued space exploration, satellite continuity, and the growth of life-changing space technology,” said Dr. Kimberley Miner, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Despite the grim outlook for space debris and the increasing number of satellites in Earth orbit, steps are being taken to mitigate space debris in the future. One of these steps involves reducing the number of space collisions through proper ground tracking techniques.
How much will the increasing number of satellites in Earth orbit lead to more hazardous conditions, and what additional steps can be taken to mitigate these hazards? Hopefully, international leadership can begin to resolve these issues through collaborative agreements and keep the night sky clear for everyone.
Sources: Science, University of Plymouth, Nature, Changing America, Condor, UNESCO, European Space Agency
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