What's the environmental impact of space debris and how can we solve it?

Space industry should help solve climate change not worsen it.

Space industry should help solve climate change not worsen it. Image: Pexels.

Rajeev Suri
Chief Executive Officer, Inmarsat Global Ltd
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  • The rise in the number of satellites being launched into space is unsustainable.
  • Satellites mega-constellations pose a risk to climate and the environment.
  • Tighter global regulation is needed to ensure space sustainability.

The space industry likes to see itself as an integral player in the battle against climate change. On a superficial level, this perception is justified. Space science and exploration have fostered a deeper understanding of our planet and satellite communications will allow for a more efficient use of the planet’s resources.

But the space sector is far from the pristine custodian that it claims to be. The industry is in the grip of an unprecedented investment spree. Collectively, we are sending more and more objects into space every year and, at the current rate of expansion, we risk decimating the value of space for future generations. Unless we act now, an environmental crisis will be created in space, which could hamper our efforts to tackle climate change here on earth.

Mega-constellations in space pose a threat to climate

The present pace of growth is unsustainable. Over the past six decades, about 11,000 satellites have been launched, of which 7,000 remain in space. But that number could swell to the hundreds of thousands by the end of this decade as private companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink and Amazon join China and other nation states in building mega-constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Some of these new constellations will boast tens of thousands of satellites. Each one will have an expected life of between five and 10 years, creating vast amounts of space debris that will clutter their own orbit and endanger anything passing through it.

The environmental dangers of such space debris are myriad, including light pollution that would hinder future scientific discovery. Just as worrying are satellite re‑entries from the mega‑constellations, which could deposit hazardous levels of alumina into the upper atmosphere. The resulting solar radiation would have pernicious consequences for the environment. The planned mega-constellations could throttle competition and innovation too, if one country or company comes to dominate a particular orbit.

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However the smart use of space can enhance life on earth. Satellites are reducing emissions in the aviation industry by optimising flight paths and help container ships boost efficiency and profitability. Elsewhere, space technology helps us measure global carbon emissions more accurately, allows farmers to boost yields and feed the world’s growing population more sustainably. Satellites will be essential if we are to connect the roughly three billion people who have yet to use the internet. Whole industries, from mining to retail, simply would not be able to operate without satellite communications.

But the rules that govern this precious asset are no longer fit for purpose. The current regulatory regime lacks teeth; it relies on actors’ willingness to play fair and there are no meaningful penalties to deter rule breaking. Since joining Inmarsat as Chief Executive last year, I have lost count of the times I have heard space regulation described as a "wild west". The epithet is merited.

Many of the benefits of space-based communications are already possible using low-risk geostationary satellite constellations, positioned in high orbit, with more to come helped by the advent of LEO satellites. But we should all be worried about the scale, sustainability and safety issues created by the number of LEO mega-constellations now in development. The potential risks may outweigh the benefits.

Regulation is needed to address space sustainability

To avoid catastrophe, space industry leaders, regulators and governments should work towards a solution based on five principles, which Inmarsat outlined in a recent Space Sustainability Report.

First, we need a level playing field for operators globally. Second, a new regulatory framework must allow for robust enforcement, including penalties for companies that flout the rules. Third, we must increase investment in data and analytical tools to ensure a better understanding of the underlying science. Fourth, we need to detach sustainability from national security concerns; countries should be able to share information about the location of their satellites without revealing their purpose. Finally, regulations must be put in place rapidly and then improved over time as new technologies emerge at lightning speed.

We have no time to waste in finding solutions to these challenges. At the national level, regulators must take immediate action to ensure vibrant competition beyond a handful of LEO mega-constellations. Nations need to rethink how they grant market access and exclude irresponsible actors.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

At the multilateral level, countries with the largest footprint in space must come together to agree some basic standards, such as limiting the number of satellites in a given orbital shell. The coalition of the willing Inmarsat has proposed would initially include the UK, Europe, US, Japan, Brazil, Australia and other like-minded countries.

At the global level, which is the most critical for a long-term sustainable solution, the ITU, the United Nations agency for information and communications, should be given the mandate and resources to address issues of space sustainability. The ITU is not perfect, but it has proven its worth ensuring the equitable and rational use of spectrum.

Through a lack of smart regulation and foresight, the planet’s resources have been mismanaged and we are all paying the price. The lesson of climate crisis is that prevention is better than the cure.

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