While satellite technology is used to provide a huge range of social and environmental benefits, there are fears the predicted growth of the industry could make large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable.
The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to over 60,000 by 2030, with estimates suggesting there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.
An international collaboration of experts in fields including satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution said this demonstrates the urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit.
They have expressed their concerns in the journal Science.
While they acknowledged that a number of industries and countries are starting to focus on satellite sustainability, they also said this should be enforced to include any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit.
Any agreement, they added, should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, from the time they launch onwards.
Commercial costs should also be considered when looking at ways to incentivise accountability. Such considerations are consistent with current proposals to address ocean plastic pollution as countries begin negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty, they said.
The experts also believe that unless action is taken immediately, large parts of our planet’s immediate surroundings risk the same fate as the High Seas where insubstantial governance has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and plastic pollution.
“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,” said Imogen Napper, lead researcher of the study from University of Plymouth, UK.
“Mirroring the new UN ocean initiative, minimizing the pollution of the lower Earth orbit will allow continued space exploration, satellite continuity, and the growth of life-changing space technology,” said Kimberley Miner, Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, US.
“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,” said Melissa Quinn, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, UK.
“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 issue of plastic pollution a decade ago, and had we acted then the quantity of plastic in our oceans might 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 much that can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that is relevance to the accumulation of debris in space,” said Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth.
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