New research bolsters theory that climate change will make our space junk problem even worse

New research bolsters theory that climate change will make our space junk problem even worse

Conceptual image of space junk around the Earth, not to scale.

According to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters last month, two massive and catastrophic problems will become one in the near future: Climate change is likely to worsen the problem of space debris.

Changes in air density could lead to a crowded upper atmosphere, making satellite collisions more likely. Moreover, recent research projects indicate that, under intermediate climate scenarios, the upper atmosphere will lose its density twice as fast in the future as it has in the past.

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“Space debris is becoming a rapidly growing problem for satellite operators due to the risk of collisions,” said Ingrid Cnossen, atmospheric scientist at the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and lead researcher on the study. in a British Antarctic Survey press release. “The long-term decline in the density of the upper atmosphere makes [the issue] even worse,” she added.

Low Earth Orbit Debris Graphic

Low Earth Orbit Debris Graphic

NASA tracks the approximate number of objects orbiting Earth. This graph, based on 2019 data, shows all objects currently tracked in low Earth orbit.

It’s counterintuitive, but while humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the lower atmosphere, thus warming the surface of our planet, we are simultaneously cooling the middle and upper atmosphere. The reasons are many, but one of the main contributing factors is CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide molecules readily absorb heat. In the lower atmosphere, this means more molecules collide and more heat is reflected back to Earth. But in the upper atmosphere, where there are fewer molecules around to begin with, the heat-trapping CO2 holds energy so tightly that it’s more likely to escape into space than hitting another particle. and warm thin air.

And as the upper atmosphere cools, it also loses density. Less dense air means that satellites and other space objects orbiting Earth face less drag. Our atmosphere is supposed to be self-cleaning, with objects breaking out of orbit and burning up on the way down. However, in a less dense environment, satellites and space junk stay in the air longer.

The accumulation of atmospheric space debris is, in itself, a growing and looming crisis. We depend on satellite infrastructure for communications, research and data collection, and weather forecasting, and we are rapidly running out of real estate. There have already been disturbing collisions and close calls.

According to the European Space Agency, more than 30,000 traceable objects are currently circulating in low Earth orbit. NASA estimates that around 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are orbiting Earth, and about 100 million tiny pieces. And each collision creates even more waste. Add climate change and accidents could still increase.

Previous research has come to similar conclusions. A 2021 publication, to which Cnossen also contributed, revealed that objects in low Earth orbit will have 30% longer lifespans under 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, compared to the year 2000.

Recent findings reinforce these past findings and offer new quantification of atmospheric change. According to the research, the upper atmosphere is expected to lose heat and density twice as fast over the next 50 years as it has over the past half-century. This acceleration closely follows the expected simultaneous increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 2070, writes the study author.

Cnossen relied on computer models to come to this conclusion. She used climate, emissions and atmospheric data to generate one of the most comprehensive models of climate change in the upper atmosphere to date.

“The changes we have observed between the climate in the upper atmosphere over the past 50 years and our predictions for the next 50 are the result of carbon dioxide emissions,” Cnossen said in the press release. For the satellite industry and policymakers, understanding climate change – beyond the Earth’s surface – “is increasingly important,” she added.

In follow-up work, the scientist hopes to explore a wider range of climate scenarios and CO2 emissions, to better prepare the world for all possible outcomes from space junk.

And ideally, a better understanding of the problem will lead to meaningful solutions. “I hope this work will help guide appropriate actions to control the problem of space pollution,” Cnossen noted in the statement. Ultimately, she wants to “ensure that the upper atmosphere remains a usable resource well into the future.”

After: What you need to know about Kessler syndrome, the ultimate space disaster

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