Space should be given the same level of legal protections as land, sea and the atmosphere, in order to protect its fragile environment, astronomers claim.
Low Earth orbit, the region a few hundred miles above the planet, is at risk from space debris, and objects causing light pollution for astronomers viewing space from the Earth, according to a new study led by the University of Edinburgh.
Clusters of satellites, including SpaceX Starlink, all orbiting about 300 miles above the surface of the Earth, are ‘endangering this precious ecosystem,’ researchers say.
The installation of these huge clusters of hardware, some with up to tens of thousands of satellites delivering broadband to Earth, are congesting space and rocket launches are also polluting the atmosphere, they added.
The research is connected to a legal case before the US Court of Appeal, which will set an important precedent in the growing campaign for space environmentalism.
Addressing these issues requires a holistic approach that treats orbital space as part of the environment and worthy of environmental protection, at national and international levels, the team behind the study say.
The Scottish team say policy makers should work collaboratively to create a shared, ethical, sustainable approach to space.
Space should be given the same level of legal protections as land, sea and the atmosphere, in order to protect its fragile environment, astronomers claim
Low Earth orbit, the region a few hundred miles above the planet, is at risk from space debris, and objects causing light pollution for astronomers viewing space from the Earth, according to a new study led by the University of Edinburgh
HOW MANY ITEMS ARE THERE IN ORBIT?
- Rocket launches since 1957: 5450
- Number of satellites in orbit: 8950
- Number still in space: 5000
- Number still functioning: 1950
- Number of debris objects: 22300
- Break-ups, explosions etc: 500
- Mass of objects in orbit: 8400 tonnes
- Prediction of the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models
- Over 10cm: 34 000
- 1cm to 10cm: 900 000
- 1mm to 1cm: 128 million
Source: European Space Agency
It isn’t just a threat to Earth, as pieces of broken satellites, which travel at enormous speeds through space threaten working satellites in their path, the paper says.
Furthermore, streaks from satellite flares, which cause light pollution, are increasingly disrupting research.
The giant Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, which aims to carry out a 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time, will be badly affected, for example.
They argue that space is a vital environment for professional astronomers, amateur stargazers, indigenous people and the new space economy.
The scientific, economic and cultural benefits of space should be carefully considered against these damaging environmental impacts, they wrote.
The researchers urge policy-makers to consider the environmental impacts of all aspects of satellite constellations – including their launch, operation and de-orbit.
It comes as SpaceX looks set to launch a total of 13,000 satellites, Amazon buys up rocket space to put thousands of satellites into orbit up to 2025, and other companies and nations such as China plan to do the same in the coming years.
The installation of these huge clusters of hardware, some with up to tens of thousands of satellites delivering broadband to Earth, are congesting space and rocket launches are also polluting the atmosphere, they added
Clusters of satellites, including SpaceX Starlink, all orbiting about 300 miles above the surface of the Earth, are ‘endangering this precious ecosystem,’ researchers say
Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellites are responsible for over HALF of close encounters in orbit
Over half of all close encounters in orbit between objects are caused by SpaceX Starlink satellites – even with just 1,500 of a planned 12,000 launched so far, data shows.
Satellite operators such as SpaceX are constantly forced to make adjustments to avoid encounters with other spacecraft and pieces of debris.
With hundreds of Starlink satellites in orbit, the number of dangerous approaches will continue to grow, according to a study by the University of Southampton.
Researchers found that Starlink satellites are involved in an average of 1,600 close encounters with other spacecraft every week, including some where the two objects come within about half a mile of each other, according to a Space.com report.
If two spacecraft do crash in orbit then they would generate a cloud of debris that would in turn threaten other satellites operating in the same region of space.
Professor Andy Lawrence, lead author, said the Earth is currently at a watershed moment in history, where cheap launches will increase the number of satellites.
‘We can cheaply launch huge numbers of satellites and use them to the benefit of life on Earth – but this comes at a cost. As well as damaging stargazing, the space industry may be shooting itself in the foot,’ he said.
Professor Lawrence brought these issues to popular attention in his book, Losing The Sky, which led to him writing an expert witness statement for a US legal case.
It is currently before the US Court of Appeal which argued that US environmental regulations should apply to space launch licensing.
Professor Moriba Jah, co-author and Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin, said all things are interconnected, including when it comes to space.
‘We must embrace stewardship as if our lives depended on it. Traditional ecological knowledge holds a key to solving this wicked problem,’ Prof Jah said.
‘The largest challenge we have is in recruiting empathy and compassion toward solving these environmental crises.
‘If we can find innovative ways to enable the general public to project themselves into this dire condition, and feel concern to address it, the earth, and all of the lives she sustains, wins.’
Professor Jah recently co-founded the start-up, Privateer Space together with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and CEO of Ripcord, Alex Fielding.
The company takes a new approach to mapping objects in orbit accurately, in near real-time, to enable the sustainable use of space by a growing number of operators.
The research is connected to a legal case before the US Court of Appeal, which will set an important precedent in the growing campaign for space environmentalism
Dr Meredith Rawls, co-author and researcher at the University of Washington, said some telescopes and services will be more heavily affected than others.
‘Rubin Observatory will be one of the most severely impacted astronomy facilities by large numbers of bright satellites due to its large mirror and wide field of view — the same characteristics that make it such a remarkable engine for discovery,’ she said.
‘I care a lot about how satellite streaks affect science, but the case for dark and quiet skies is much larger than that.
‘We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone.’
Dr Rawls is a leading actor in the new International Astronomical Union (IAU) Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference which aims to bring together sky observer stakeholders to collaborate on quantifying, mitigating and disseminating the impacts of satellites.
The paper is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
WHAT IS SPACE JUNK? MORE THAN 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEAD SATELLITES, SPENT ROCKETS AND FLAKES OF PAINT POSE ‘THREAT’ TO SPACE INDUSTRY
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.