Space debris risk as big as ocean plastic threat

Insurers have been urged to join the growing call for action on space debris following a plea by scientists to create a legally binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit isn’t irreparably harmed by the future expansion of the global space industry.

Less than a fortnight after 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.

The international group 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.

Dr Imogen Napper, research fellow at the University of Plymouth, who led the newly-published study with funding from the National Geographical Society, 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”.

While those behind the call for action acknowledge that a number of industries and countries are starting to focus on satellite sustainability, they believe this should be enforced to include any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit.

Any agreement, they added, 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.

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.”

The experts added 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.

Heather Koldewey, ZSL’s Senior Marine Technical Advisor, said: “To tackle planetary problems, we need to bring together scientists from across disciplines to identify and accelerate solutions. As a marine biologist I never imagined writing a paper on space, but through this collaborative research identified so many parallels with the challenges of tackling environmental issues in the ocean. We just need to get better at the uptake of science into management and policy.”

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.”