Artwork of junk in space adapted from cover of E&T February 2018 issue

Space junk treaty needed to keep Earth’s orbit usable, experts say

Image credit: Dreamstime / Rex / Allstars

Scientists have called for a legally binding treaty to cut the amount of space junk orbiting the Earth over concerns that parts of the Earth’s orbit could become unusable.

The number of smaller pieces of space debris currently in orbit is thought to number more than 100 million. Due to their colossal orbital speeds, even small pieces can pose a threat to satellites and spacecraft, several of which have been damaged or destroyed already.

The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase from around 9,000 today to over 60,000 by 2030.

While such technology is used to provide a huge range of social and environmental benefits, there are fears the predicted growth of the industry could make large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable.

An international group of experts from the University of Plymouth; Arribada Initiative; the University of Texas at Austin; the California Institute of Technology; Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Spaceport Cornwall, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) say this demonstrates the urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit.

The group called for enforcement action to be taken on satellite sustainability for any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit.

Any agreement should include measures to implement producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris from the time they launch onwards.

Commercial costs should also be considered when looking at ways to incentivise accountability. Such considerations are consistent with current proposals to address ocean plastic pollution, with countries already beginning negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.

The experts also said that unless action is taken immediately, large parts of our planet’s immediate surroundings risk the same fate as the high seas, where insubstantial governance has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration and plastic pollution.

Dr Imogen Napper, research fellow at the University of Plymouth who led the study, said: “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.

“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”.

Dr Kimberley Miner, scientist at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “Mirroring the new UN 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.”

British start-up Astroscale-UK has unveiled plans to remove a defunct British satellite from orbit using a sophisticated robot arm sent into to space to retrieve the junk before being sent downwards to burn up in the atmosphere.

This initiative is part of the UK governments’ wider effort to address the worrying volume of debris in space.

The UK’s space agency previously offered £4m in funding to industry partners to deliver capabilities to track objects in space and reduce debris.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles