Scientists are calling for global action to tackle space junk

Scientists are calling for a legally binding treaty to protect Earth’s orbit from the dangers of space debris.

An international team of experts said there are about 100 trillion pieces of ancient satellites orbiting the planet that are not being tracked.

As the global space industry continues to expand, the team fears that low Earth orbit could become unusable unless there are plans to deal with space junk.

In the journal Science, they said there is an urgent need for global consensus on how best to control Earth’s orbit to avoid the faults seen in the world’s oceans where human activities have harmed marine species, with nearly 10% threatened with extinction.

Dr. Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and lead author of the paper, said: “The issue of plastic pollution and many of the other challenges facing our oceans are now attracting global attention.

“However, there has been limited collaboration and implementation has been slow.

“Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris.

“If we take into account what we have learned from the high seas, we can avoid making the same mistakes and we can work collectively to avoid a space commons tragedy.

“Without a global agreement, we could be on a similar path.”

Last week, more than 190 countries reached an agreement to protect marine life as part of the UN Convention on the High Seas — after nearly two decades of negotiations.

With the number of satellites in orbit expected to rise from 9,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030, the authors said a similar agreement should be made to protect low-Earth orbit.

Right now, the greatest danger that space debris poses is to other satellites in orbit.

Collisions are rare at the moment, but as more satellites enter orbit, much more maneuvering is required to avoid collisions.

In 2018, Surrey Satellite Technology’s RemoveDEBRIS mission practiced grabbing a satellite with a giant net.

A year later, the European Space Agency performed its first satellite maneuver 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 beginning to focus on satellite sustainability, they added that this should be enforced on any country that plans to use Earth’s orbit.

They said measures should be included to implement “producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris from the moment they are launched”.

Dr. Kimberley Miner, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, US, said: “Following the new UN ocean initiative, minimizing pollution from lower Earth orbit will allow further space exploration, continuity of satellites and the growth of life-changing space technology.”

Melissa Quinn, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “Satellites are essential to the health of our people, economies, security and the Earth itself.

“However, the use of space for the benefit of people and the planet is at risk.

“By comparing how we have treated our seas, we can be proactive before harming the use of space for future generations.

“Humanity must now take responsibility for our behavior in space, not later.

“I encourage all leaders to take note, recognize the importance of this next step and take collective responsibility.”

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