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We need a legally binding treaty to eliminate space junk, scientists urge

16 March 2023

An international group of scientists are calling for a global push to reduce the environmental harm caused by space exploration.

Image: Eleanor Burfitt/University of Plymouth
Image: Eleanor Burfitt/University of Plymouth

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 says 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. 

Dr Imogen Napper, Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, led the newly published study with funding from the National Geographical Society. She 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.”

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.

Melissa Quinn, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: "Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security and Earth itself. However, using space to benefit people and 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 behaviours in space now, not later. I encourage all leaders to take note, to recognise the significance of this next step and to become jointly accountable."

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, concluded: “Going forward, we need to take a much more proactive stance to help safeguard the future of our planet.

There is much that can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that are relevant to the accumulation of debris in space."

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