Air pollution from reentry of mega-constellation satellites could cause ozone hole 2.0

Chemicals released when missing satellites burn in the atmosphere could damage Earth’s protective ozone layer if plans are made to build mega-stellations of tens of thousands of satellites, like SpaceX’s. Star link, go ahead as planned, warn scientists.

The researchers also warn that the poorly understood atmospheric processes triggered by these chemicals could lead to a geoengineering experience whose consequences are unknown.

For years, the space community has been content with the fact that the amount of material that burns in the atmosphere as a result of Earth’s encounters with meteoroids far exceeds the mass of dead satellites experiencing the same fate. Even the rise of mega-stellations will not change anything. The problem, however, is the different chemical makeup of natural meteorites compared to man-made satellites, according to Aaron Boley, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

“We have 54 tons (60 tons) of meteoroid material coming in every day,” Boley, one of the authors of a article published on May 20 in the journal Scientific Reports, said. “With the first generation of Starlink, we can expect about 2 tonnes (2.2 tonnes) of dead satellites to enter Earth’s atmosphere daily. But meteorites are mostly rocks, which are made up of oxygen. , magnesium and silicon. These satellites are mostly aluminum, which the meteoroids contain only a very small amount, about 1%. “

Related: Launch of the mega-constellation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite in photos

Uncontrolled geoengineering

Scientists have realized that mega-stellations have great potential to alter the chemistry of the upper atmosphere from its natural state. But not only that. Burning aluminum is known to produce aluminum oxide, also known as alumina, which can trigger other unexplored side effects.

“Alumina reflects light at certain wavelengths and if you throw enough alumina into the atmosphere, you’ll create a scattering and eventually change the albedo of the planet,” Boley said.

Albedo is the measure of the amount of light reflected by a material. In fact, increase the albedo of the Earth pumping certain types of chemicals into the upper layers of the atmosphere has been proposed as a possible geoengineering solution that could slow global warming. However, Boley said, the scientific community has rejected such experiments because not enough is known about their possible side effects.

“Now it looks like we’re going to conduct this experiment without any oversight or regulation,” Boley said. “We don’t know what the thresholds are and how that will change the upper atmosphere.”

The Cygnus refueling vehicle, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station, burns in the atmosphere as it reenters. (Image credit: ESA / Alexander Gerst)

Ozone hole 2.0

Aluminum from reentrying satellites also has the potential to damage the ozone layer, a problem well known to mankind, which has been successfully solved by the widespread ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals used in the past in aerosols and refrigerators.

In their article, Boley and his colleague Michael Byers cite the research of their counterparts at the Aerospace Corporation, a US nonprofit research organization, which identified local damage to the planet’s ozone layer by the passage of polluting rockets in the atmosphere.

“We know that alumina depletes ozone just from the rocket launches themselves, because many solid fuel rockets use or have alumina as a by-product,” Boley said. “It creates these temporary little holes in the stratospheric ozone layer. It’s one of the biggest concerns about the changes in the composition of the atmosphere that spaceflight can cause.”

The ozone layer protects life on Earth from harmful UV rays. Ozone depletion in the stratosphere, the second-lowest layer of the atmosphere extending between elevations of about 7 to 40 miles (10 to 60 kilometers), has led to an increased risk of cancer and eye damage to humans on Earth.

Gerhard Drolshagen, from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who has published papers on the effects of meteoroid material on Earth, told that re-entering satellites typically evaporate at altitudes between 55 and 30 miles (90 and 50 km), just above the ozone-rich stratosphere. However, he added, the particles created as a result of the burning of the satellites will eventually sink into the lower layers.

Boley said that when the alumina sinks into the stratosphere, it will cause chemical reactions that, based on existing knowledge, will likely trigger ozone destruction.

Drolshagen, who was not involved in the recent study, agreed that because “satellites are mostly made of aluminum, the amount of aluminum deposited in the atmosphere will certainly increase.”

Concerns about the effects of aluminum oxides on the atmosphere were cited by US telecommunications operator Viasat in its request to the US Federal Communications Commission. Suspend launches of SpaceX’s mega-starlink starlink until an appropriate environmental assessment of its possible impacts is conducted.

Dramatic stratospheric clouds are linked to the destruction of ozone. (Image credit: NASA / Lamont Poole)

Learn from the mistakes of the past

In their study, Boley and his colleagues only looked at the effects of the first generation of the Starlink mega-constellation, which is expected to include 12,000 satellites. More than 1,700 of them have already been launched. Due to the activities of SpaceX (and to a lesser extent those of other constellation operators), the number of active and deceased satellites in low Earth orbit, the region of space below the altitude of 620 miles ( 1,000 km), has increased by 50% in the past two years, according to the newspaper.

“The problem is that there are now plans to launch around 55,000 satellites,” Boley said. “The second generation of Starlink could have up to 30,000 satellites, then you have Starnet, which is China’s response to Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, OneWeb. It could lead to unprecedented changes in the upper atmosphere of the world. Earth.”

Megaconstellation operators, inspired by the mainstream technological model, expect rapid development of new satellites and frequent replacement, hence the large number of satellites that are expected to burn daily in the atmosphere.

“Humans are exceptionally good at underestimating our ability to change the environment,” Boley said. “There is this perception that there is no way to dump enough plastic into the ocean to make a difference. There is no way to dump enough carbon into the atmosphere to make a difference. But here we are. We have a plastic ocean pollution problem, we have climate change going on due to our actions and our changing the composition of the atmosphere and we are about to commit the same. type of error using space. “

Starlink satellite trains ruin astronomical observations. (Image credit: Victoria Girgis / Lowell Observatory)

Astronomers, space debris and others

Megaconstellations are of serious concern to the space community as they increase the risk of orbital collisions in the already congested orbital environment.

SpaceX’s Starlink in particular has also been criticized because of the effects visible trains from their satellites have on astronomical observations. SpaceX has pledged to cooperate with the astronomical community and change the design of their satellites to alleviate the problem. However, earlier this year, the International Astronomical Union asked a specialized United Nations committee to protect the pristine night sky against light pollution from mega-stellations.

Last week, the chief of European launch provider ArianeSpace, Stéphane Israël, accused SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk of monopolize space and oust competitors.

In addition to SpaceX, Musk has also been recognized with his sustainability-focused companies Tesla and Solar City, whose goal was to help the world wean off fossil fuels. Earlier this year, Musk launched the $ 100 million Carbon Removal X award, the richest incentive prize in history. The aim of the award is to develop technologies that can help avoid the worst effects of man-made climate change.

SpaceX did not respond to’s request for comment.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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