Scientists call for legally-binding treaty to protect Earth’s orbit. Here’s why

Over;60,000 satellites expected to orbit Earth by 2030, up from the current 9,000 satellites
Over 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites are circling the planet. Photo: iStock
Over 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites are circling the planet. Photo: iStock

Less than a week after members of the United Nations agreed on a treaty to conserve and sustainably use the high seas beyond national boundaries, scientists call for a similar legally-binding agreement to protect the Earth’s orbit.

As many as 60,000 satellites are expected to orbit Earth by 2030, up from the current 9,000 satellites, according to experts from the University of Plymouth, The University of Texas at Austin, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall and the Zoological Society of London.

The researchers have written a letter published in Science journal. Over 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circle the planet, they added.

More than 27,000 pieces of “space junk” are being tracked, NASA stated. Space debris includes non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

A Russian COSMOS 2499 satellite disintegrated on January 4, 2023, leaving behind debris. Some 85 individual pieces at an altitude of 1,169 km are being tracked, according to the United States Space Force. The cause of the fragmentation is not known yet.

Space debris can also be generated when two satellites collide, releasing thousands of new pieces. 

Anti-satellite tests also result in debris. In 2019, India tested an anti-satellite missile targeting a satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The LEO is located at an altitude ranging from 160 km to 1000 km above Earth, according to the European Space Agency.

The treaty should ensure that producers and users take responsibility for satellites and debris. It should also enforce collective international legislation, including fines and other incentives to make countries and companies accountable for their actions, the researchers wrote in the letter.

The treaty should ensure that countries using the Earth’s orbit should commit to global cooperation, they added.

Currently, companies are not incentivised to clean up orbits or to include de-orbiting functions in satellites, the letter stated. De-orbiting means bringing dead satellites back to Earth.

There is no international treaty that seeks to minimise orbital debris. But the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has laid out guidelines to mitigate space debris.

These guidelines include minimising the potential for break-ups during a satellite’s operational phases and limiting the probability of accidental collision in orbit, among others.

The current Outer Space Treaty is hindered by ever-changing geopolitics, technology and commercial gain, the letter read.

The Earth’s orbit is threatened by competing interests, a lack of corporate responsibility and nation-specific regulations that are not enforced.

Operators are expected to clear the orbit within 25 years after the satellite’s mission ends. Still, most states have neglected to implement the necessary local space regulations, according to the letter.

The researchers highlighted that satellites provide social and environmental benefits but risk making some orbits unusable.

Space debris could trigger a chain reaction, where too many objects collide with each other and create new space junk in the process, according to NASA scientist Donald Kessler. This, he explained, could make Earth’s orbit unusable. 

Further, the experts draw parallels between space debris and plastic pollution in the oceans. 

Collaboration and implementation to address plastic pollution has been slow and now a similar situation is being played out with space debris, Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, said in a statement.

“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,” she added.

“Mirroring the new United Nations Ocean initiative, minimising the pollution of the lower Earth orbit will allow continued space exploration, satellite continuity and the growth of life-changing space technology,” Kimberley Miner, Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.

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