Scientists call for global action to tackle space junk
Scientists are calling for a legally-binding treaty to protect the Earth’s orbit from the dangers posed by space debris.
An international team of experts said there are around 100 trillion pieces of old satellites circling the planet that are not being tracked.
As the global space industry continues to expand, the team said there are fears that the low-Earth orbit could become unusable unless there are plans to tackle space junk.
Writing in the journal Science, they said there is an urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit to avoid the mistakes seen in the world’s oceans where human activities caused damage to marine species, with nearly 10% at risk of extinction.
Dr Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and lead author on the paper, said: “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.
“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.”
Last week, more than 190 countries reached an agreement to protect marine life as part of the UN High Seas Treaty – after negotiating for nearly two decades.
With the number of satellites in orbit expected to rise from 9,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030, the authors said that a similar agreement needs to happen to protect the low-Earth orbit.
At the moment, the biggest danger space debris poses is to other satellites in orbit.
Collisions are rare at the moment, but as more satellites make it into orbit, it raises the need for a lot more collision avoidance manoeuvres.
In 2018, Surrey Satellite Technology’s RemoveDEBRIS mission practised grabbing a satellite with a giant net.
A year later, the European Space Agency performed its first satellite manoeuvre to avoid colliding with a mega constellation.
Meanwhile, UK-based Astroscale is planning the UK’s first national mission to remove space debris.
The authors said that while a number of industries and countries are starting to focus on satellite sustainability, they added this should be enforced to include any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit.
They said measures should be included to implement “producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, from the time they launch onwards”.
Dr Kimberley Miner, scientist at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, US, said: “Mirroring the new UN ocean initiative, minimising the pollution of the lower Earth orbit will allow continued space exploration, satellite continuity, and the growth of life-changing space technology.”
Melissa Quinn, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “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 behaviours in space now, not later.
“I encourage all leaders to take note, to recognise the significance of this next step and to become jointly accountable.”