Astronomers urge action over light pollution caused by space debris

"We all share the sky."
Chris Young
A space debris image.
A space debris image.

ESA / ID&Sense / ONiRiXEL 

A team of scientists has released a new paper detailing the impact of artificial satellites and space debris on the night sky.

Their report, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, details explicitly the impact of light pollution as well as interference with ground- and space-based observatories.

Space debris is increasing at an alarming rate

The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030. The European Space Agency estimates that there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling Earth.

Last year, NASA provided a stark warning that SpaceX's Starlink mega-constellation could impede "our planet's ability to detect and possibly redirect a potentially catastrophic impact" from a near-Earth asteroid. A group of astronomers recently also organized against the company's practices, stating that "we all share the sky."

While SpaceX's Starlink obviously doesn't account for all space debris in orbit, it is arguably the best example of a company launching massive amounts of machinery into space at a time when the impact isn't yet fully understood.

In their report, Fabio Falchi, at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, and colleagues suggested that the problem is viewable in the night sky as light pollution. They said that light pollution from the ground and also from low-Earth orbit satellites is increasing as the amount of space debris rises.

They also indicated that there are now almost no remote locations on Earth that meet the criteria for an observatory due to light pollution.

The growing light pollution problem

SpaceX has previously stated that it has adjusted its Starlink satellites to reduce the amount of light they reflect. However, astronomers have gone on record saying it was not enough.

Now, the group of researchers recommended introducing binding caps to stop the escalation of artificial light at night and satellite constellations.

They based this recommendation on an analysis carried out via simulations of light pollution. Ultimately, they found that the increase in space debris will lead to the loss of ground-based observatory data, as observatories on the ground increasingly struggle to peer past the light pollution.

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