Space debris threatens space activity and astronaut safety, so NASA scientists and other experts have called for a legally binding treaty to ensure that space debris does not irreparably affect activities in Earth’s orbit. With more than 9,000 satellites in orbit today and a forecast to reach 75,000 by 2030, satellite technology brings numerous benefits, but the growth of this industry could render large areas of Earth orbit unusable.
The UK Natural History Museum explains that this space junk does not currently pose a threat to space exploration, but recent incidents have provided stark examples of how quickly a dangerous situation could arise for astronauts. The problem is compounded if disused satellites still in orbit collide and create smaller fragments that are difficult to track.
The scientists, who include experts in satellite technology and ocean microplastics, say the agreement to ensure the sustainability of satellites should make satellite users and producers responsible for debris from the time of launch. The suggested measure is consistent with a recent United Nations treaty to tackle plastic pollution in the sea, agreed by 200 countries and called the Global Plastics Treaty.
However, the problem is urgent and implementation of the treaty cannot be allowed to be delayed, as was the case with the Global Plastics Treaty, which took 20 years to implement. Scientists want to avoid the same delay in addressing the problem of space debris.
Experts say factors such as commercial costs must be taken into account to incentivize responsibility on the part of satellite users and producers. “Satellites are vital to the health of our people, economies, security, and the Earth itself. However, the use of space for the benefit of people and the planet is at risk,” says Melissa Quinn, one of the expert advocates for the space debris treaty and director of Spaceport Cornwall.
Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with researchers from Plymouth University, the Arribada Initiative, the University of Texas at Austin, the California Institute of Technology, Spaceport Cornwall, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), underscore the urgent need for a global consensus on how to manage Earth’s orbit.