Scientists call for global push to eliminate space junk

A legally-binding treaty to protect Earth's orbit from damage caused by satellite expansion is needed, experts say

Computer-generated image released by the European Space Agency shows trackable objects in orbit around Earth. AFP
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Scientists are advocating for a legally-binding treaty to ensure that the Earth's immediate surroundings are not irreparably damaged by the rapid expansion of the global space industry.

The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030, with already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.

While satellite technology provides a broad range of social and environmental benefits, the predicted growth of the industry could make large parts of Earth's orbit unusable.

An international collaboration of experts — including researchers from the University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, The University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall and the Zoological Society of London — have published an article in the journal Science outlining the urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth's orbit.

They propose a legally-binding treaty that includes measures to introduce producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, from the time they launch onwards.

The experts said that commercial costs should also be considered when looking at ways to incentivise accountability, similar to proposals to address ocean plastic pollution, as countries begin negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.

Unless action is taken immediately, large parts of Earth's immediate surroundings risk the same fate as the high seas, where insubstantial control has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration and plastic pollution, the scientists said.

Dr Imogen Napper, a Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth who led the study, said there has been limited collaborative action and implementation has been slow with regards to plastic pollution, and many of the other challenges facing our oceans, which are now attracting global attention. She said it was important to avoid making the same mistakes and work collectively to prevent a tragedy in space by taking into consideration what has been learnt from the oceans.

The authors argue that a global agreement is necessary to prevent large parts of our planet's immediate surroundings from suffering a similar fate to the world's oceans.

Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviours in space now, not later, the study says.

The study received funding from the National Geographical Society and was co-authored by scientists who contributed to the commitment to develop a Global Plastics Treaty, which was signed by 170 world leaders at the UN Environment Assembly in March last year.

They are now encouraging all leaders to take note of the significance of this next step and become jointly accountable for safeguarding the future of the planet.

Updated: March 09, 2023, 7:00 PM