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

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

Conceptual image of space debris around Earth, not to scale.

Conceptual image of space debris around Earth, not to scale.

Two huge, catastrophic problems will become one in the near future: Climate change is likely to make the space debris problem worse, according to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters last month.

Changes in air density could result in an extra-populated upper atmosphere, making collisions with satellites more likely. In addition, recent research projects predict that under mid-range climate scenarios, the upper atmosphere will lose density twice as fast in the future as 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 principal investigator of the study. a press release of the British Antarctic Survey. “The long-term decrease in the density of the upper atmosphere is happening [the issue] even worse,” he added.

Plot of debris in low earth orbit

Plot of debris in low earth orbit

NASA keeps track of the approximate number of objects in orbit around the Earth. This chart, based on data from 2019, shows all objects currently being tracked in low Earth orbit.

It’s counterintuitive, but as humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the lower atmosphere, thereby warming the surface of our planet, we are simultaneously doing the cooler middle and upper atmosphere. The reasons are multiple, but one of the biggest contributing factors is CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide molecules readily absorb heat. In the lower atmosphere, this means more molecules collide with each other 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 the energy so tightly that it’s more likely to escape into space than another particle and warm the air thin

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

The accumulation of atmospheric space debris is, by itself, a growing and imminent crisis. We rely on satellite infrastructure for communications, research and data collection, and weather forecasting, and we’re quickly running out of real estate. There has already been some concern collisions i Close calls.

Currently, there are more than 30,000 pieces of traceable material circulating in low Earth orbit, according to the European Space Agency. NASA estimates that approx 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are orbiting the Earth and about 100 million tiny pieces. And each collision creates even more garbage. Add climate change and accidents could multiply even more.

Prior research reached similar conclusions. A Publication 2021n, to which Cnossen also contributed, found that objects in low Earth orbit will have a 30% longer lifetime under 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, compared to 2000.

The recent findings reinforce these past conclusions and offer a new quantification of atmospheric change. According to the research, the upper atmosphere will lose heat and density twice as fast over the next 50 years as in the last half century. This acceleration closely follows the simultaneous expected increase in atmospheric CO2 levels between now and 2070, the study author wrote.

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

“The changes we saw 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,” he added.

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

And ideally, a greater understanding of the problem will lead to significant solutions. “I hope this work will help guide appropriate action to control the problem of space pollution,” Cnossen said in the statement. Ultimately, he wants to “ensure that the upper atmosphere remains a usable resource in the future.”

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