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Scientists call for environmental protections for space

Scientists are calling for environmental protections of space to be put in place to account for the increasing number of satellite launches. As more satellites are launched, the problem of space debris gets worse and worse, and scientists have warned this could have long-term consequences for both scientific research and the well-being of people on the ground.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also recently put out a report on space debris, mentioning that the increasing number of satellite launches, especially satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit like SpaceX’s Starlink, is creating an unsustainable impact on the space environment. According to ESA, there are more than 30,000 pieces of space debris that have been recorded in orbit around our planet, and according to models, there could be more than one million objects larger than 1 centimeter in size.

In their paper in the journal Nature Astronomy, the group of researchers warned that the accumulation of junk in orbit, such as satellites that no longer work or discarded rocket boosters, will impact a wide range of fields. As well as satellites interfering with astronomy research, the increasing amount of junk will interfere with what they call “public access to the stars” — the right of ordinary people to look up and see an unpolluted night sky. This applies to both amateur astronomers, the many groups of Indigenous people for whom the night sky is an important part of their culture, and everyone who simply wishes to enjoy the view of the stars above.

One of the major problems of space debris is that, without serious actions taken soon, the issue will continue to get worse due to collisions. When two satellites collide, they create thousands of pieces of debris which is smeared across their orbits — and this debris can create yet more collisions. The ultimate danger is that we could be affected by “Kessler syndrome,” in which there is so much junk in orbit that cascading collisions make it difficult or even impossible to launch any further space missions.

The researchers argue that we should consider space through the same lens of environmentalism that we use for Earth, and take action to protect it. “We rely on the orbital space environment by looking through it, as well as by working within it,” they write. “Hence, we should consider damage to professional astronomy, public stargazing, and the cultural importance of the sky, as well as the sustainability of commercial, civic, and military activity in space.”

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