Space junk: scientists call for international treaty to stop pollution from Earth’s orbit

Scientists are calling, in an article published this Thursday in the journal Science, for a legally binding international treaty to guarantee that Earth’s orbit will not be irreparably damaged by the future expansion of the space industry on a global scale. The position is taken by experts in areas such as satellite technology and ocean plastic pollution.

Some of the experts were at the forefront of the commitment to a global treaty against plastic pollution, which was undertaken in March 2022 by more than 170 countries at the United Nations Environment Assembly.

According to experts, any binding treaty to protect Earth’s orbit from pollution by space junk must include measures that would hold the manufacturers and users of satellites (and their debris) accountable from the moment they are launched into space. Business costs should be factored into accountability.

According to the latest figures released in December 2022 by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office, there are more than 10 thousand 500 tons of space junk around the Earth.

“We know where everything that’s more than 10cm is, but there’s always that 10% that might surprise us”noted astrophysicist Nuno Peixinho, speaking to Expresso, in a article published in the journal E. “We have a great lack of knowledge about what counts between one and ten centimeters, it is estimated that there are about a million. The big concern is with all these small things whose impact can greatly damage or completely destroy a satellite,” said the researcher from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences (IA) and the University of Coimbra.

Philipp Igumnov/Getty Images

The Express magazine

In addition, there are about 130 million pieces of debris, between one millimeter and one centimeter, so small that “you won’t be able to track them all,” warns Peixinho. And in space, being hit by something the size of a pinhead would cause a “terrifying impact” greater than a 9mm bullet. “The speed of things in orbit is very high, between 21,600 km/h and 28,800 km/h, which is much faster than a shot, which is normally fired at 3600 km/h. For an astronaut, in principle, it would be fatal.”the AI ​​researcher condemns.

Britain’s University of Plymouth, which has scientists backing the idea of ​​an international treaty to defend Earth’s orbit, warns in a statement that “there are fears that projected growth in the ‘space’ industry could render much of it unusable of the Earth’s orbit. “.

Researcher Kimberley Miner, from the North American Space Agency (NASA), who signs the Science article, emphasizes that “minimizing pollution from low Earth orbit will allow us to sustain space exploration and the development of space technology” with an impact in human life.

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