PLYMOUTH, United Kingdom — Does the global space industry pose a bigger threat to mankind than plastic pollution? Researchers say derelict objects left in orbit and other disintegrating space junk may cause a catastrophic collision above our atmosphere. They warn that they would destroy communication systems, setting modern society back decades.
Scientists are calling for a legally-binding treaty to ensure Earth doesn’t suffer irreparable harm by future space expansion.
“The issue of plastic pollution, and many of the other challenges facing our ocean, is now attracting global attention. 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,” says Dr. Imogen Napper, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth, in a media release.
“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 study, published in the journal Science, coincides with nearly 200 countries agreeing to a treaty to protect the oceans — the culmination of a 20-year process. Society needs to take the lessons learned from one part of our planet to another, the international team argues.
The number of satellites in orbit is likely to increase from the current 9,000 to more than 60,000 by 2030. Estimates show that there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.
The technology provides a huge range of social and environmental benefits. However, there are fears the predicted growth in satellite traffic could make large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable. Study authors contend that satellite sustainability should be enforced and include similar agreements to those proposed in the Global Plastics Treaty.
Large parts of our planet’s immediate surroundings risk the same fate as the seas, where insufficient governance has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and pollution.
“To tackle planetary problems, we need to bring together scientists from across disciplines to identify and accelerate solutions. As a marine biologist I never imagined writing a paper on space, but through this collaborative research identified so many parallels with the challenges of tackling environmental issues in the ocean. We just need to get better at the uptake of science into management and policy,” says Heather Koldewey, the Zoological Society of London’s Senior Marine Technical Advisor.
Last year, an Australian sheep farmer reportedly woke up to find a large chunk of debris from Elon Musk’s SpaceX capsule in his garden.
“Ancient TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) informs us how we must embrace stewardship because our lives depend on it. I’m excited to work with others in highlighting the links and interconnectedness amongst all things and that marine debris and space debris are both an anthropogenic detriment that is avoidable,” adds Dr. Moriba Jah, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin.
Astrophysicists warn it’s only a matter of time before human life is at risk, should the number of such crashes increase.
“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,” notes Dr. Kimberley Miner, Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security and Earth itself. 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,” continues Melissa Quinn, Head of Spaceport Cornwall.
“I have spent most of my career working on the accumulation of plastic litter in the marine environment; the harm it can bring and the potential solutions. It is very clear that much of the pollution we see today could have been avoided,” concludes Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth.
“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. Going forward we need to take a much more proactive stance to help safeguard the future of our planet. There is much that can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that is relevance to the accumulation of debris in space.”