There Are Now 100 Trillion Bits Of ‘Space Junk’ Circling Our Planet—And It’s About To Get A Lot Worse


Does the global space industry need regulating? Scientists are calling for a legally-binding treaty to restrict the number of satellites launched into low-Earth orbit as the space industry rapidly expands.

In the same week nations reached a historic agreement for a treaty to protect 30% of the high seas by 2030 scientists with backgrounds in both satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution have stressed the urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit.

Writing in the journal Science they state that the predicted growth of the industry could make large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable and that those that launch satellites must be accountable for the debris they create.

One of the main causes of the present and future spike in satellites is a trend for low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks to provide broadband internet access. SpaceX currently has over 3,500 satellites in its Starlink constellation—with an initial target of 12,000—while OneWeb has around 550. Meanwhile, Amazon’s proposed Project Kuiper is planning 3,236 satellites, with the first two test satellites due to go skywards this year.

That’s why the number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to over a whopping 60,000 by 2030 while estimates suggest there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.

They’re hoping that this is the “plastic straw moment” for Earth’s littered orbit, comparing it to the world’s oceans, which are finally being protected after many decades of overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration and plastic pollution.

“Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris,” said Dr Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, who led the study with funding from the National Geographical Society. “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 research is keen to capitalise on collective regret felt around the failure—until now—to protect the oceans. “We were well aware of the issue of plastic pollution a decade ago, and had we acted then the quantity of plastic in our oceans might be half of what it is today,” said Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth. “There is much that can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that is relevance to the accumulation of debris in space.”

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.



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