NASA scientists push for treaty to deal with dangerous ‘space debris’

NASA scientists and other experts have called for a legally binding agreement to ensure that “space debris” created by the growing space industry does not irreparably threaten activities in Earth’s orbit.

The space close to our planet is becoming increasingly crowded as there are more than 9,000 satellites in orbit today, and the East South Observatory (ESO) predicts that number could rise to 75,000 by 2030.

While satellite technology undeniably provides many benefits here on Earth, the growth of this industry could render large portions of the earth’s orbit unusable. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that obsolete satellites still in orbit collide and create smaller fragments that are difficult to track.

“Satellites are vital to the health of our people, the economy, security and the Earth itself. However, the use of space for the benefit of people and the planet comes with risks,” said one of the experts calling for a space debris agreement and the head of the Cornwall spaceport. Melissa Quinn,” the statement said. (will open in a new tab) “Humanity must take responsibility for its behavior in space now, not later. I call on all leaders to take note, recognize the importance of this next step and take joint responsibility.”

Related: Getting space debris under control may require a change in attitude

It is estimated that there may already be more than 100 trillion old satellites in orbit around the planet that are not tracked. This poses a great risk to other satellites. Every year, satellites perform hundreds of collision avoidance maneuvers to avoid collisions that could not only damage or even destroy active satellites, but also create even more space debris.

British Museum of Natural History (will open in a new tab) explains that this space debris does not currently pose a threat to space exploration, but recent incidents are prime examples of how quickly a dangerous situation can arise for astronauts.

As previously reported in October 2022, the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to take evasive action to avoid a piece of space debris from a Russian satellite that was destroyed by a widely condemned anti-satellite missile test in 2021. In November 2021, astronauts aboard the ISS were forced to take shelter in their transport ships when the space station passed uncomfortably close to space debris. And just this week, the ISS had to fire up its engines to get out of the path of a satellite taking pictures of Earth.

In their call for a treaty, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists, along with researchers from the University of Plymouth, the Arribad Initiative, the University of Texas at Austin, Caltech, Spaceport Cornwall, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), highlighted the urgent need for a global consensus on how control the earth’s orbit.

Scientists, including experts in satellite technology and oceanic microplastics, say a satellite resiliency deal should make satellite users and manufacturers responsible for debris from the moment they are launched. When looking for ways to encourage accountability, experts say factors such as business costs should be considered.

This means the proposed move is in line with the recent United Nations (UN) treaty to combat marine plastic pollution, negotiated by 200 countries called the Global Plastics Compact. The treaty took 20 years to implement, and scientists are keen to avoid the same delay in addressing the space debris problem.

One of the scientists advocating the treaty is Plymouth University Research Fellow Dr. Imogen Napper.

“The problem of plastic pollution and many other problems facing our oceans are currently attracting the attention of the whole world. However, joint action has been limited and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris. “, Napper said. “By taking into account what we have learned on the high seas, we can avoid repeating the same mistakes and work together to prevent the tragedy of the commons in space. Without a global agreement, we could be on the same path.” .

The scientists expressed their concerns and called for an agreement in the journal Science. (will open in a new tab).

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