Space close to our planet is becoming increasingly crowded with over 9,000 satellites in orbit today, and Eastern Southern Observatory (ESO) projects that this number could grow as high as 75,000 by 2030.While satellite technology undoubtedly provides a multitude of benefits here on Earth, the growth of this industry could render large areas of Earth’s orbit unusable. The problem is compounded by decommissioned satellites still in orbit colliding and creating smaller fragments that are difficult to track.
“Satellites are essential to the health of our people, economies, security and the Earth itself. But using space for the benefit of people and the planet is at risk,” one of the experts calling for the space junk treaty and head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Quinn said in a statement. (opens in new tab) “Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behavior in space now, not later. I urge all leaders to take note, to recognize the importance of this next step and to become jointly responsible.”
Related: Getting space junk under control may require a change in attitude
Estimates predict that there may already be over 100 trillion pieces of ancient satellites orbiting the planet that have not been tracked. This poses a great risk to other satellites. Hundreds of collision avoidance maneuvers are performed every year by satellites to avoid collisions that would not only cause damage to operational satellites or even destroy them, but also generate even more space junk.
That UK Natural History Museum (opens in new tab) explains that this space debris does not currently pose a threat to space exploration, but recent incidents have provided stark examples of how quickly a dangerous situation for astronauts can arise.
As Space.com previously reported in October 2022, the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to dodge to avoid a fragment of space debris from a Russian satellite destroyed by a widely condemned anti-satellite missile test in 2021. In November 2021, astronauts aboard the ISS were forced to to take shelter in their transport spacecraft as the space station passed uncomfortably close to space debris. And just this week, the ISS had to fire its thrusters to maneuver out of the way of an Earth-imaging satellite.
In their call for a treaty, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers, along with researchers from the University of Plymouth, the Arribada Initiative, the University of Texas at Austin, the California Institute of Technology, Spaceport Cornwall and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) all emphasized the urgent need for a global consensus on how to manage the Earth’s orbit.
The researchers, including experts in satellite technology and oceanic microplastics, say the agreement to ensure satellite sustainability should place responsibility for waste on satellite users and manufacturers from the time they launch onwards. When looking at ways to encourage accountability, experts say factors such as commercial costs should be considered.
This means the proposed move is in line with a recent UN treaty to deal with plastic pollution in the ocean agreed by 200 countries, called the Global Plastics Treaty. The treaty took 20 years to implement, and scientists are eager to avoid the same delay in tackling the space debris problem.
One of the scientists calling for the treaty is University of Plymouth researcher Dr. Imogen Napper.
“The issue of plastic pollution, and many of the other challenges facing our oceans, is now attracting global attention. However, there has been limited cooperative action and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris,” said Napper . “Regarding what we have learned from the high seas, we can avoid making the same mistakes and work together to prevent a tragedy of the commons in space. Without a global agreement, we could find ourselves on a similar path. ”
The researchers raised their concerns and called for the treaty in the journal Science (opens in new tab).
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