With 100 Trillion Bits of Old Satellites Circling the Planet, Scientists Call for Action on Space Junk

A group of scientists want a legally-binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit isn’t irreparably harmed.

Space junk around planet earth
An artist's representation of space debris orbiting Earth. Maciej Frolow / Getty Images

Houston, we have a problem.

The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with landfills groaning under the stress. We've delivered more than 170 trillion plastic particles to the oceans and continue to do so at an alarmingly rapid rate. With land and sea literally littered with trash, where else do we have to turn? Well, the final frontier, of course. Space.

NASA calls what's known as low Earth orbit (LEO) an orbital space junkyard, explaining that "most orbital debris comprises human-generated objects, such as pieces of spacecraft, tiny flecks of paint from a spacecraft, parts of rockets, satellites that are no longer working, or explosions of objects in orbit flying around in space at high speeds."

There are no international space laws to clean up debris in our LEO, says NASA, adding: "LEO is now viewed as the World’s largest garbage dump, and it’s expensive to remove space debris from LEO because the problem of space junk is huge."

Just how huge? Huge, and getting huger.

"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," says a press statement from the University of Plymouth announcing a study in which a group of scientists is calling for a legally-binding treaty to ensure Earth’s orbit isn’t irreparably harmed by the future expansion of the global space industry.

The group of scientists is an international collaboration of experts in fields ranging from satellite technology to ocean plastic pollution. Hailing from a diverse range of institutions— including the University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall, and ZSL (Zoological Society of London)—they say we are in urgent need for global agreement on how best to oversee the Earth’s orbit.

They argue that while satellite technology provides a broad range of social and environmental benefits, if allowed to grow without governing, large parts of Earth’s orbit could become unusable.

"Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security and Earth itself," says Melissa Quinn, head of Spaceport Cornwall. "However, using space to benefit people and planet is at risk ... Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviours in space now, not later."

While they recognize that a number of industries and countries are beginning to address satellite sustainability, they assert that such focus should be enforced for any nation that intends to use Earth’s orbit.

The study cites the dismal stewardship with which we've treated the ocean—"where insubstantial governance has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and plastic pollution"—as a harbinger of what's to come if we don't take action now.

“I have spent most of my career working on the accumulation of plastic litter in the marine environment; the harm it can bring and the potential solutions," says Professor Richard Thompson OBE, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth. "It is very clear that much of the pollution we see today could have been avoided. We were well aware of the issue of plastic pollution a decade ago, and had we acted then the quantity of plastic in our oceans might be half of what it is today."

"Going forward, we need to take a much more proactive stance to help safeguard the future of our planet," Thompson adds. "There is much that can be learned from mistakes made in our oceans that is relevant to the accumulation of debris in space.”

Importantly, they add that governance should include measures that make producers and users responsible for satellites and debris, from the time they launch onward. There is an easy argument to be made that this oversight is one of the most significant factors around our catastrophic plastic pollution problem. For example, the way in which beverage manufacturers shifted the responsibility of recycling single-use plastic to the consumer.

Also citing humanity's record with plastic pollution as instructive for what not to do, study leader Dr. Imogen Napper, says, “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.”

The study, "Protect Earth’s orbit: Avoid high seas mistakes," was published in the journal Science.