Satellite makers and operators should be held accountable for the growing danger of space debris, according to experts who say a legally binding global treaty should be scrapped to protect the space environment.
With the number of satellites rising dramatically, the agreement would make manufacturers and users responsible for taking defunct hardware out of orbit and cleaning up any debris created when orbiting objects collide.
The call to action comes from leading figures in the aerospace industry and research, as well as marine scientists, who believe that lessons should be learned from the years of effort that finally led to this week’s groundbreaking agreement on a treaty on the high seas to protect of the oceans.
“If we’re too slow and don’t have these discussions now, we’re going to create a huge mess,” said Dr. Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter research unit. “We have an early chance to make a positive impact, but time is running out.”
About 9,000 satellites orbit the Earth, but the number is likely to exceed 60,000 by 2030. The trend is largely the result of a shift towards mega-constellations of small satellites. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 Starlink satellites into the most congested low Earth orbit (LEO) and is on track to reach 12,000 by 2026.
Although space is vast, most of LEO’s satellites operate less than 1,000 km above the ground. In addition to fully operational satellites, the orbit is littered with dead and dying hardware, hazardous debris from past collisions, and spent rocket components. An estimated 100 tons of untracked pieces from old satellites are already in orbit.
Much of the debris has been circling the planet for decades. In January, an old Soviet missile body blasted past a dead Russian spy satellite, avoiding by meters a collision that would have left thousands of fragments in its path.
One feared scenario is a collision with Envisat, the European Space Agency’s largest Earth observation satellite, which has been adrift in LEO for 11 years. Ultimately, space junk can render important orbits useless.
In Science magazine, Napper, along with the head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Quinn and Dr. Kimberley Miner of NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, describe how failure to protect the oceans led to overfishing, habitat destruction and deep-sea mining. exploration and ubiquitous plastic pollution.
“To avoid repeating the mistakes that have left the high seas – and all who depend on them – vulnerable, we need collective collaboration, informed by science, to develop a timely legally binding treaty to restore Earth’s orbit. help protect them,” they say.
Napper said all countries that use or want to use space should be involved in discussions to draft the treaty. It should make it clear that satellite manufacturers and users are responsible for removing old satellites from orbit and cleaning up debris from collisions, with enforcement including fines and other incentives.
“If an intervention to reduce plastic pollution had been started 10 years ago, it might have halved the amount of plastic in the ocean today,” Napper and her colleagues write. “The cost of delaying the protection of Earth’s orbit should not be underestimated.”
According to Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University, eradicating such a treaty would be no small feat. “The difficulty in negotiating a binding treaty on space debris that will hold and make a positive difference is that the very nations that need to compromise are geopolitical adversaries,” he said.
“It seems more likely that countries that want to play a leading role in this area will have to try to get as many others on board as possible. Determining what “good” looks like in terms of responsible behavior could go a long way in setting people on a more sustainable path in space.
“Whether it is a binding international treaty or a series of non-binding softer agreements that govern actual behavior, states will have to start showing real leadership in this area. The cost of a major orbital collision could be economically and environmentally disastrous.”