Chemicals released during the burning of non-existent satellites in the atmosphere could damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer if it plans to build megaconstellations of tens of thousands of satellites, such as SpaceX Starlink, proceed as planned, scientists warn.
Researchers also warn that misunderstood atmospheric processes caused by these chemicals can lead to uncontrolled geoengineering experiment, the consequences of which 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 Earth̵
“We have 54 tons (60 tons) of meteorological material coming in every day,” Boli, one of the authors of article published May 20 in the journal Scientific Reportshe told Space.com. “With the first generation of Starlink, we can expect about 2 tons (2.2 tons) of dead satellites entering the Earth’s atmosphere every day. But meteoroids are mostly rocks that are made of oxygen, magnesium and silicon. These satellites are mostly aluminum. which meteoroids contain only in a very small amount, about 1%. “
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Scientists are realizing that megaconstellations have significant potential to change the chemistry of the upper atmosphere compared to its natural state. But not only that. Combustion of aluminum is known to produce alumina, also known as alumina, which can cause additional unexplored side effects.
“Aluminum reflects light at certain wavelengths, and if you release enough aluminum into the atmosphere, you will create scattering and eventually change the albedo of the planet,” Bolly said.
Albedo is a measure of the amount of light reflected by a material. In fact, increase the albedo of the Earth by pumping certain types of chemicals into the higher layers of the atmosphere has been proposed as a possible geoengineering solution that can slow global warming. However, Bowley 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 run this experiment without any supervision or regulation,” Bolly said. “We don’t know what the thresholds are and how that will change the upper atmosphere.”
Ozone hole 2.0
Aluminum from re-entering satellites also has the potential to damage the ozone layer, a problem well known to mankind that has been successfully solved by widespread bans on the use of chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals used in the past in aerosol sprays and refrigerators.
In their article, Bowley and his colleague Michael Byers cite research by colleagues at Aerospace Corporation, a U.S. nonprofit research organization that identifies local damage to the planet’s ozone layer caused by the passage of polluting missiles through the atmosphere.
“We know that aluminum destroys ozone only from rocket launches themselves, because many solid-fuel rockets use or have aluminum as a by-product,” Bolly said. “This creates these small temporary holes in the stratospheric ozone layer. This is one of the biggest concerns about the compositional changes in the atmosphere that spaceflight can cause.”
The ozone layer protects life on Earth from harmful UV radiation. Ozone depletion in the stratosphere, the second lowest layer of the atmosphere, stretching between 10 and 60 kilometers above sea level, has led to an increased risk of cancer and eye damage for people on Earth.
Gerhard Drolshagen of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who published articles on the effects of meteoroid material on Earth, told Space.com 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 by the burning of the satellites will eventually sink into the lower layers.
Bolly said that as alumina sinks into the stratosphere, it will cause chemical reactions that, based on existing knowledge, are likely to cause ozone depletion.
Drolshagen, who was not involved in the recent study, agreed that because “the satellites are mostly made of aluminum, the amount of aluminum deposited in the atmosphere will certainly increase.”
Concerns about the impact of alumina on the atmosphere were raised by US telecom operator Viasat in a request to the US Federal Communications Commission. to stop launches of SpaceX’s mega-constellation Starlink until an appropriate environmental review of its possible impacts is carried out.
Learning from past mistakes
In their study, Bolly and colleagues looked only at the effects of the first-generation mega-constellation Starlink, which is expected to consist of 12,000 satellites. More than 1700 of them are already running. As a result of the activities of SpaceX (and to a lesser extent those of other constellation operators), the number of active and non-existent satellites in low Earth orbit, the area of space below 1000 km above sea level, has increased by 50% in recent years. two years, according to the newspaper.
“The problem is that there are now plans to launch about 55,000 satellites,” Bolly said. “The second-generation Starlink can consist of up to 30,000 satellites, then you have Starnet, which is China’s response to Starlink, Amazon Kuiper, OneWeb. This could lead to unprecedented changes in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.”
Megaconstellation operators, inspired by the consumer technology model, expect rapid development of new satellites and frequent replacement, thus expecting a large number of satellites to burn into the atmosphere on a daily basis.
“People are extremely good at underestimating our ability to change the environment,” Bolly said. “There is a feeling that there is no way to throw enough plastic into the ocean to make a difference. There is no way to throw enough carbon into the atmosphere to make a difference. But here we are. We have plastic the problem of ocean pollution, we continue to change climate as a result of our actions and changes in the composition of the atmosphere and we are ready to make the same type of mistake using space. “
Astronomers, space debris and others
Megaconstellations are causing serious concern to the space community as they already increase the risk of collisions with orbits. crowded orbital environment.
SpaceX’s Starlink in particular has come under fire also because of the effects that the visible trains of their satellites have on astronomical observations. SpaceX is committed to collaborating with the astronomical community and changing the design of its satellites mitigation of the problem. Earlier this year, however, the International Astronomical Union requested a specialized UN committee to protect the virgin night sky against light pollution from megastars.
Last week, the head of Europe’s ArianeSpace launch provider, Stefan Israel, accused SpaceX chief Elon Musk of monopolizing space and pushing out competitors.
In addition to SpaceX, Musk was recognized for his sustainability-focused ventures Tesla and Solar City, which aimed to help wean the world off fossil fuels. Earlier this year, Musk has launched the $ 100 million carbon X removal award, the richest incentive award in history. The aim of the award is to develop technologies that can help prevent the worst effects of man-made climate change.
SpaceX did not respond to Space.com’s request for comment.
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