Scientists call for global action to eliminate dangerous space debris

Scientists are calling for a legally binding treaty to protect Earth’s orbit from irreparable damage caused by the expansion of the global space industry. With the number of satellites in orbit expected to rise from 9,000 to over 60,000 by 2030 and fears that large parts of Earth’s orbit will become unusable, experts in satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution point out the urgent need for a global consensus on how to govern Earth’s orbit. They argue that any nation intending to use Earth orbit should be included in the application of satellite durability.

A collaboration led by the University of Plymouth has urged leaders to learn lessons from managing the high seas and take action to protect Earth’s orbit.

Scientists have called for a legally binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit is not damaged beyond repair by the future expansion of the global space industry.

In the week that nearly 200 countries agreed on a treaty to protect the high seas after a 20-year process, experts say society needs to learn lessons from one part of our planet to another.

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

Although this technology is used to provide a wide range of social and environmental benefits, there are concerns that the expected growth of the industry could render large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable.

Writing in the journal Science, an international collaboration of experts in fields such as satellite technology and plastic pollution of the oceans, says this demonstrates the urgent need for a global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit. .

They acknowledge that a number of industries and countries are beginning to focus on satellite durability, but say this should be applied to include any nation intending to use Earth orbit.

Any agreement, they add, should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, as soon as they are launched. Business costs must also be considered when looking for ways to incentivize accountability. These considerations are in line with current proposals to tackle ocean plastic pollution as countries enter negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.

Experts also believe that unless action is taken immediately, large parts of our planet’s immediate environment risk the same fate as the high seas where careless governance has led to overfishing, destruction of the habitat, deep sea mineral exploration and plastic pollution.

Dr Imogen Napper, researcher at the University of Plymouth. Credit: Eleanor Burfitt/University of Plymouth

The article was co-authored by researchers from the University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall and ZSL (Zoological Society of London).

They include the academic who led the first-ever study of marine microplastics, also published in Science nearly 20 years ago, and scientists who contributed to the commitment to develop a signed global plastics treaty by 170 world leaders at the United Nations Environment Assembly in March. 2022.

Dr Imogen Napper, a researcher at the University of Plymouth, led the recently published study with funding from the National Geographical Society. She said: “The issue of plastic pollution and many other challenges facing our oceans are now attracting global attention. However, collaborative actions have been limited and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris. By heeding what we have learned 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.

Heather Koldewey, ZSL’s Senior Marine Technical Advisor, said, “To tackle global problems, we need to bring together scientists from all disciplines to identify and accelerate solutions. As a marine biologist, I never imagined writing an article about space, but through this collaborative research, I have identified many parallels with the challenges of solving environmental problems in the ocean. We simply need to improve the integration of science into management and policy. »

Dr. Moriba Jah, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, said: “Ancient TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) informs us about how we should embrace the stewardship because our lives depend on it. I am excited to work with others to highlight the connections and interdependence between all things and that marine debris and space debris are both preventable anthropogenic harm.

Dr Kimberley Miner, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “Reflecting the United Nations’ new ocean initiative, minimizing pollution from lower Earth orbit will enable continued space exploration, the continuity of satellites and the growth of life-changing space technologies. ”

Melissa Quinn, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “Satellites are vital to the health of our people, our economies, our security and the Earth itself. However, the use of space for the benefit of people and the planet is in danger. By comparing how we have treated our seas, we can be proactive before harming the use of space for future generations. Humanity must take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later. I encourage all leaders to take notice, recognize the importance of this next step, and become jointly accountable. »

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, said: “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. We were well aware of the problem of plastic pollution ten years ago, and if we had acted, the amount of plastic in our oceans could 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 a lot to learn from the mistakes made in our oceans when it comes to the accumulation of debris in space.

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