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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Nations pushed for international treaty to eliminate space junk

There are believed to be somewhere around 9,000 working satellites orbiting Earth — and more than 100 trillion bits of debris from old and broken satellites.

(CN) — Over the weekend, members of the United Nations put the finishing touches on a decades-in-the-making treaty to limit pollution and protect biodiversity in international waters, the so-called High Seas Treaty.

Now scientists are calling for a similar treaty — for space.

"The way that humans have been behaving when it comes to exploration of land, ocean and air has been detrimental to these environments," said Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. "And space is no different."

Along with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding, Jah is the co-founder of Privateer, a company dedicated to tracking space junk orbiting Earth. Last year, the company launched Wayfinder, a website that estimates the position of every satellite floating around our planet.

"Right now, we're tracking 48,000 human-made objects in space," said Jah. "Of those, 4,800 work. And everything else is garbage."

And that's just what Jah is tracking. There are believed to be around 9,000 working satellites orbiting our planet. With the cost of launching satellites decreasing, and their practical applications growing, the number of working satellites in orbit is expected to rise to more than 60,000 by the year 2030.

The fear is that the growing amount of space junk — old, non-working satellites and trillions of small pieces of metal left behind by old satellites and space probes hurtling around our planet at speeds of up to 17,500 mph — will make earth's orbit a treacherous environment for the satellites we genuinely lead. It's easy to see a problem like this could escalate quickly: the space junk could cut satellites to shreds, leading to more space junk, destroying more satellites, and so on.

"Collisions can create thousands of tiny fragments, which can create even more collisions," said Imogen Napper, a marine scientist specializing in plastic pollution.

That's already happened. On Feb. 10, 2009, two Russian communications satellites, one active and one defunct, smashed into each other at 26,000 mph, nearly 500 miles above Siberia. In 2011, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network catalogued more than 2,000 large debris fragments from the crash.

Jah, Napper and four other scientists co-authored an article, published in the journal Science on Thursday, calling for an international treaty to eliminate space junk. Napper, who led the team, said she was first drawn to the issue three years ago after watching the Pixar animated film WALL-E. The movie follows the adventures of a small robot designed to pick up trash on an abandoned and trash-covered earth in the year 2805. Halfway through the film, WALL-E leaves earth on a spaceship, which must break through a thick shroud of abandoned satellites that envelop the earth like another layer of atmosphere.

"I remember thinking, 'Is this actually true?'" Napper said. "I became obsessed with the topic."

According to the team's research, there are more than 100 trillion fragments of satellites currently floating around our planet. And it's pretty much stuck there — as of yet, there is no technology to pick them up.

"Much like the ocean will never be pristine, neither will space," said Jah. "We’re going to have to learn how to live in our dirty bathwater."

What Napper, Jah and the rest of the team are proposing is that the world agree to manage earth's orbit in a more responsible way to prevent the problem of space junk from getting out of hand.

"Can we minimize single-use satellites?" asked Jah, echoing the push to minimize single-use plastics. "Can we make satellites multi-use and recyclable?"

If such a treaty were to become a reality, it would largely be regulated by private companies. According to Science News, around half of all active satellites orbiting Earth belong to SpaceX, the commercial space transportation company owned by Elon Musk.

Follow @hillelaron
Categories / Environment, International, Science

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