Dead satellites are filling space with trash. That could affect Earth’s magnetic field | Sierra Solter

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A dead spacecraft the size of a truck ignites with plasma and pulverizes into dust and litter as it rips through the ionosphere and atmosphere. This is what happens to internet service satellites during re-entry. When the full mega-constellation of satellites is deployed in the 2030s, companies will do this every hour because satellite internet requires thousands of satellites to constantly be replaced. And it could compromise our atmosphere or even our magnetosphere.

Space entrepreneurs are betting on disposable satellites as key to a new means of wealth. There are currently nearly 10,000 active satellites and companies are working as fast as possible to get tens of thousands more into orbit – for a projected 1m in the next three to four decades.

“We could get to 100,000 satellites in 10 to 15 years,” Dr Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told me. Those satellites power hyper-connected internet services and may turn some billionaires into trillionaires – at the cost of shrouding the planet with toxic trash.

The problem is that space, contrary to popular belief, isn’t really a giant, self-cleaning void. Space holds systems like the magnetosphere that keep us alive and supplied with oxygen by protecting our atmosphere. The space around our planet is a plasma cocoon that is cradling life.

It is easy to assume that the magnetosphere is too vast and robust for humanity to ever have any impact on it, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m a plasma physicist at the intersection of aerospace and physics and the author of recent research in peer-review that found that the space trash generated by dead and dying commercial satellites could compromise our ionosphere or magnetosphere, also known as our planet’s plasma environment.

After studying the problem for over a year, I have no doubt that the sheer vastness of this pollution is going to disrupt our delicate plasma environment in one way or another. Yet few people are discussing this potential crisis – in part, I suspect, because so much scientific research about space is intertwined with commercial space ventures, which have a vested interest in avoiding these questions.

Upon investigating just how much dust in the form of satellite and rocket debris the space industry has dumped into the ionosphere during re-entry, I was alarmed to find that it is currently multiple Eiffel Tower’s worth of metallic ash. I wouldn’t have even been able to calculate that at all without a scientist’s personally run website. Our ozone is mere pennies thick, and soon we will be putting at least an Eiffel Tower’s worth of metallic ash a year directly into the ionosphere. And all of that will stay there, indefinitely.

How could we possibly think that burning trash in our atmosphere 24/7 is going to be fine? Although some study is being devoted to stratospheric loading – the phenomenon of satellite and rocket chemicals saturating the atmosphere with ozone-depleting alumina – humanity might also be forcing “magnetospheric loading” on our planet, as well. No one else is currently studying the pollution of the magnetosphere except for myself.

We don’t even have a clear estimate of the mass of all regions in the magnetosphere, yet we are going to load it with the wreckage of countless giant spacecraft. These SUV-size satellites will soon be burning in the atmosphere on an hourly basis. Unlike meteorites, which are small and only contain trace amounts of aluminum, these wrecked spacecraft are huge and consist entirely of aluminum and other exotic, highly conductive materials. And highly conductive materials can create charging effects and act as a magnetic shield.

If all of these conductive materials accumulate into a huge layer of trash, it could trap or deflect all or parts of our magnetic field. The Earth is a ball magnet that we’re surrounding with fast-moving metal trash. And so far, extrapolating from open-source data, the current trash in the ionosphere shows an apparent human-made electrostatic signature. It is known that individual spacecraft can perturb their environment with plasma wakes; imagine how 100,000 or more of them and their associated trash could perturb the magnetosphere.

Even if we only induce ionospheric perturbations regionally – say, in spaceflight regions – then it could cause holes above the ozone. This in turn, could allow atmospheric stripping, which could erode our atmosphere over time and put the planet at risk of losing habitability.

Low Earth orbit is being promoted as a “destination and economy” for satellites and even low-gravity space hotels (which seem to be perpetually “coming soon” and then canceled). People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos repeatedly state that space is the key to human longevity. But what if it is the opposite? What if the space industry is the means to our pale blue dot’s demise? And what if all of this pollution that space entrepreneurs are creating is happening in such a multidisciplinary, inaccessible, un-studied way that we don’t even understand the risk?

Our magnetosphere keeps us alive. It should be protected as an Earth environment. Instead, we’re filling it with electronic waste so that billionaires can trade electromagnetic signals for dollars they really don’t need.

“Our technical civilization poses a real danger to itself,” Carl Sagan warned in his 1997 book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. The magnetosphere is our first line of defense against an otherwise lethal solar system, and any pollution of it should be intensely studied and monitored. Indeed, if an asteroid the size of a Starlink satellite was headed towards Earth, it would activate planetary defense monitoring. But since it’s a human-made object impacting the atmosphere, we don’t monitor it at all.

Space companies need to stop launching satellites if they can’t provide studies that show that their pollution will not harm the stratosphere and magnetosphere. Until this pollution is studied further, we should all reconsider satellite internet.

  • Sierra Solter is a plasma physicist, engineer, and inventor who studies the intersection of heliophysics and aerospace

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