Eradicating space junk to be legally enforced now, urges scientists

This way, we can avoid the same mistakes that led to ocean plastic pollution.
Sade Agard
Satellite debris hovering over spce
Satellite debris hovering over spce


Scientists have urged for a legally binding treaty to ensure that Earth's orbit isn't irreversibly affected by the future expansion of the global space industry, according to a paper published in Science on March 9. 

The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to over 60,000 by 2030, with estimates suggesting there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.

"Any nation can use and exploit it"

Lead author Dr. Imogen Napper from the University of Plymouth, UK, told Interesting Engineering (IE), "This can be anything from paint flakes to tiny fragments created due to collisions."

Eradicating space junk to be legally enforced now, urges scientists
Dr Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth

She further explained that the small size of the pieces makes them extremely difficult to track. "The higher the number of fragments being created, the higher probability more will be created," Napper added. 

"Earth's orbit is a global commons, meaning that any nation can use and exploit it," Napper said. "However, that means it can lack management and collaborative protection."

"With the rise in debris, it can lead to some orbits becoming unusable, limiting us to where we can place satellites that we use for societal benefit and our ability to access space," she explained. 

Now, according to a group of international specialists in satellite technology and plastic pollution in the ocean, this shows the urgent need for international agreement on the optimum way to control Earth's orbit.

They recognize that a few businesses and nations are beginning to pay attention to satellite sustainability. Still, they argue that this should be enforced in every country intending to use Earth's orbit.

They add that any agreement should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris from the time they launch. 

A lesson learned: Ocean and space pollution

In addition, commercial costs should also be considered as a way to incentivize accountability. When nations began discussions for the Global Plastics Treaty, such ideas are similar to recent suggestions to mitigate ocean plastic pollution.

"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, Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press release.

The experts believe that unless action is taken immediately, large parts of our planet's immediate surroundings risk the same fate as the High Seas. These waters are well known to be stressed by overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and plastic pollution due to insubstantial governance.

The full study was published in Science on March 9 and can be found here.

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