As nearly 200 countries agreed to sign a treaty to protect the world’s oceans after a two-decade process, an international team of scientists are now calling for a similar, legally-binding treaty to assure that the Earth’s orbit will not be irreparably harmed by the future expansion of the global space industry.
Experts estimate that there are already over 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites currently circling our planet. Since the number of satellites is expected to increase from today’s 9,000 to over 60,000 by the end of this decade, space debris could make large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable. While satellite technology provides a variety of social and environmental benefits, minimizing the pollution of the lower Earth orbit is urgently needed to allow further space exploration and the growth of space technology.
“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,” said lead author Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral research fellow investigating the sources of environmental plastic pollution at the University of Plymouth.
“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.”
According to the experts, any agreement should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, and commercial costs should be taken carefully considered in order to incentivize accountability. Although several industries and countries have already began focusing on satellite sustainability, this should be enforced to include all nations planning to use the Earth’s orbit. Unless action is taken immediately, large parts of our planet’s surroundings would risk the same fate as the world’s oceans, where faulty governance has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and plastic pollution.
“Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security, and Earth itself. However, using space to benefit people and our 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 behaviors in space now, not later. I encourage all leaders to take note, to recognize the significance of this next step and to become jointly accountable,” concluded Melissa Quinn, the head of Spaceport Cornwall.
The call for an international treaty to address space pollution is published in the journal Science.
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