– We urgently need to protect the space environment too, researchers urge

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April 29, 2022

“We need everyone on deck to deal with the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and calm skies for everyone,” the scientists say.

Image: M. Lewinsky

Space urgently needs special legal protection similar to that given to land, sea and atmosphere to safeguard its fragile environment, scientists say in a new paper.

The scientific, economic and cultural benefits of space must be weighed against the adverse environmental effects of an influx of space debris – some 60 miles above the Earth’s surface – fueled by the rapid growth of so-called mega-satellite constellations.

In the article published in Nature Astronomy, the authors say space is an important environment to preserve on behalf of professional astronomers, amateur astronomers and indigenous peoples.

“We need everyone on deck to deal with the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and calm skies for everyone,” says the co-author Meredith Rawls, research scientist at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. and the Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology Institute (DiRAC Institute) at the University of Washington.

The team, led by Andy Lawrence, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Astronomy, reports that placing large groups of hardware in Earth orbit – some consisting of tens of thousands of satellites to provide broadband to Earth – clutters space. In addition, rocket launches pollute the atmosphere, and pieces of broken satellites, which pass through orbital space at high speed, threaten working satellites on their way. Satellite flare trails also cause light pollution, which increasingly disrupts research.

Scientists predict that the Chile-based Rubin Observatory, which aims to carry out a 10-year astrophysical study, will be badly affected, for example.

“The Rubin Observatory will be one of the hardest hit astronomy facilities by a large number of bright satellites because of its large mirror and wide field of view – the same characteristics that make it such a powerhouse of discovery. remarkable,” says Rawls. “I care a lot about how satellite footage affects science, but the case of dark, calm skies is much more important than that.”

Addressing these issues will require a holistic approach that treats orbital space as part of the environment and worthy of environmental protection nationally and internationally, according to the authors. They urge decision makers to consider the environmental impacts of all aspects of satellite constellations – including their launch, operation and deorbit – and to work collaboratively to create a shared, ethical and sustainable approach to space.

“We stand at a turning point in history,” Lawrence says. “We can cheaply launch large numbers of satellites and use them to benefit life on Earth – but it comes at a cost. In addition to damaging stargazing, the space industry could shoot itself in the foot.

Rawls has also been involved in efforts to protect and preserve the night sky through the recently established International Astronomical Union Center for the Protection of Dark and Quiet Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference. The center aims to bring together sky observation stakeholders to collaborate on the quantification, mitigation and dissemination of satellite impacts.

The new article stems in part from a court case related to how the U.S. government authorizes and authorizes commercial space launches. An amicus brief argues that US environmental regulations should apply to the licensing of space launches. The case, which could set a precedent in the growing campaign for “space environmentalism,” is currently before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“We believe that all things are interconnected and that we should embrace stewardship as if our lives depend on it,” says Jah. “Traditional ecological knowledge holds the key to solving this thorny problem.”

“The biggest challenge we have is to recruit empathy and compassion to solve these environmental crises,” concludes Jah. “If we can find innovative ways to allow the general public to project themselves into this dire situation and feel cared about doing something about it, the Earth and all the lives it supports will win.”


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