Scientists have called for a legally binding treaty to ensure that Earth’s orbit is not irreparably damaged by the future expansion of the global space industry.
In a week when nearly 200 nations agreed to a treaty to protect the high seas after a 20-year process, experts believe society needs to transfer lessons learned from one part of our planet to another.
The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from 9,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030, with estimates indicating that there are more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of ancient satellites orbiting the planet.
While this technology is used to provide a wide range of social and environmental benefits, there are concerns that the projected growth of the industry could render large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable.
Writing in the journal Science, an international collaboration of experts in areas including satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution says this illustrates the urgent need for a global consensus on how best to manage Earth’s orbit.
They acknowledge that a number of industries and countries are beginning to focus on sustaining satellites, but say this should be enforced to include any country with plans to use Earth’s orbit.
They added that any agreement must include measures to implement producer and user liability for satellites and debris, from the time they are launched onwards. Business costs must also be considered when looking for ways to incentivize accountability. These considerations align with current proposals to address ocean plastic pollution as countries begin negotiations on a global plastics treaty.
Experts also believe that unless action is taken immediately, large portions of our planet’s immediate ocean 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 article was co-authored by researchers from the University of Plymouth, the Aribada Initiative, the University of Texas at Austin, Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall, and ZSL (Zologic Society of London).
They include the academic who led the first-ever study on marine microplastics, also published in Science nearly 20 years ago, and the scientists who contributed to the commitment to develop a global plastics treaty signed by 170 world leaders at the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022. .
Dr. Imogen Knapper, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth, led the newly published study funded by the National Geographic Society. She said: “The issue of plastic pollution, and many other challenges facing our oceans, is now attracting global attention. However, there has been limited collaborative work and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with a backlog of space debris. Considering what we learned from On the high seas, we can avoid making the same mistakes and act collectively to prevent the tragedy of the space commons. Without a global agreement we could find ourselves on the same path.”
“To tackle planetary problems, we need to bring together scientists from across disciplines to identify and accelerate solutions,” said Heather Koldoy, ZSL’s Senior Marine Technical Advisor. “As a marine biologist I never envisioned writing a paper on space, but through this collaborative research I have identified many facets of Similarities to the challenges of addressing environmental issues in the ocean. We just need to improve the uptake of science into management and policy.”
“TEK (Traditional Environmental Knowledge) teaches us how we should embrace stewardship because our lives depend on it. I am excited to work with others in highlighting the connections and interconnectedness of all things and that Marine debris and space debris are avoidable man-made damage.”
“Reversing UN’s new ocean initiative, and reducing pollution of lower Earth orbit will allow continued space exploration, continuity of satellites, and the growth of life-changing space technology,” said Dr. Kimberly Miner, scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Melissa Quinn, President of the Port of Cornwall, said: “Satellites are vital to the health of our people, our economies, our security and the Earth itself. However, using space to benefit people and the planet is at risk. By comparing the way we treat our seas, we can be proactive before we do harm by using space.” Space is for future generations. Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later. I encourage all leaders to take notes, recognize the importance of this next step and become co-responsible.”
Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, said: “I have spent most of my professional life working on the accumulation of plastic litter in the marine environment; the damage it can cause and potential solutions. It is very clear that a great deal could have been avoided. of the pollution we see today. We were well aware of the issue of plastic pollution a decade ago, and if we acted, the amount of plastic in our oceans could be half of what it is today. Moving forward, we need to take a more proactive stance to help protect the future of our planet. There is a lot that needs to be done. It can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that are related to the accumulation of debris in space.”