New research supports the theory that climate change will make the space waste problem worse

The conceptual image of space debris around the Earth, not its scale.

Two major and catastrophic problems are set to become a problem in the near future: Climate change is likely to exacerbate the space debris problem, according to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters last month.

Shifts in air density can increase crowding in the upper atmosphere, increasing the potential for satellite collisions. Moreover, recent research indicates that under midstream climate scenarios, the upper atmosphere will lose its density twice as fast in the future than in the past.

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“Space debris is becoming a fast-growing problem for satellite operators due to collision risks,” said Ingrid Knusen, an atmospheric scientist at the UK Natural Environment Research Council and lead researcher on the study, in a press release from the British Antarctic Survey. “The long-term decrease in the density of the upper atmosphere is occurring [the issue] Even worse,” she added.

Diagram of debris in low Earth orbit

Diagram of debris in low Earth orbit

NASA tracks the approximate number of objects in orbit around the Earth. This graphic, based on 2019 data, shows all currently tracked objects in LEO.

It’s counter-intuitive, but as humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the lower atmosphere, thus heating our planet’s surface, we are simultaneously making the middle and upper atmosphere cooler. The causes are manifold, but one of the big contributors is carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide molecules absorb heat easily. In the lower atmosphere, this means more particles smash together and more heat is reflected back to Earth. But in the upper atmosphere, where there are fewer molecules to begin with, heat-trapped carbon dioxide retains energy so tightly that it is more likely to escape into space than it is to run into another particle and heat the thin air.

As the upper atmosphere cools, it also loses its density. Less dense air means that satellites and other space objects orbiting the Earth encounter less resistance. Our atmosphere is supposed to be self-cleaning, with things falling out of orbit and burning up on their way down. However, in a less dense environment, satellites and space debris remain elevated for longer.

The accumulation of space debris in the atmosphere is itself a growing crisis looming. We depend on satellite infrastructure for communications, research, data collection, and weather forecasting – and soon we’re running out of real estate. There were already some troubling collisions and close calls.

Currently, there are more than 30,000 pieces of traceable objects orbiting in low Earth orbit, according to the European Space Agency. NASA estimates that about 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbit the Earth, and about 100 million pieces are very small. Each collision results in more pieces of trash. Add to the climate change, and meltdowns could multiply.

Previous research reached similar conclusions. A 2021 post, to which Cnossen also contributed, found that objects in low Earth orbit would have 30% longer lives under 1.5°C of global warming, compared to 2000.

The latest results support those earlier conclusions and provide a new quantitative estimate of atmospheric change. The upper atmosphere is set to lose heat and density twice as fast in the next 50 years as it has in the past half century, according to the research. This acceleration closely follows the projected simultaneous rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels between now and 2070, the study author wrote.

Knusen relied on computer models to reach this conclusion. Climate, emissions, and atmospheric data were used to generate one of the most complete models of climate change across the upper atmosphere to date.

“The changes we’ve seen between the climate in the upper atmosphere over the past 50 years and our projections for the next 50 years are the result of carbon dioxide emissions,” Knusen said in the press release. For the satellite industry and policy makers, she added, understanding climate change – beyond Earth’s surface – “is gaining increasing importance.”

In follow-up work, the scientist hopes to explore a wide range of climate scenarios and carbon dioxide emissions, to better prepare the world for all potential outcomes of space junk.

Ideally, a greater understanding of the problem will lead to useful solutions. “I hope this work will help guide appropriate measures to control the problem of space pollution,” Knusen said in the statement. Ultimately, you want to “ensure that the upper atmosphere remains a usable resource in the future”.

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