Scientists have called for a legally-binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit isn’t irreparably harmed by the future expansion of the global space industry.
In the week that nearly 200 countries agreed to a treaty to protect the High Seas after a 20-year process, the experts believe society needs to take the 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 over 60,000 by 2030, with estimates suggesting there are already more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites circling the planet.
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.
Writing in the journal Science, an international collaboration of experts in fields including satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution say this demonstrates the urgent need for global consensus on how best to govern Earth’s orbit.
They acknowledge that a number of industries and countries are starting to focus on satellite sustainability, but say this should be enforced to include any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit.
Any agreement, they add, 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 as countries begin negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.
The experts also believe 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.
The article was co-authored by researchers from the University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, The University of Texas at Austin, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall, and ZSL (Zoological Society of London).
They include the academic who led the first ever study into marine microplastics, also published in Science almost 20 years ago, and 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.