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Space Junk & Climate Change

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at the climate impact of space junk.
Abigail Bassett
Nov 3, 2023 10 min read
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For years, climate advocates have looked to the stars and sky for answers and inspiration for ways to combat climate change. Satellites that orbit around the earth give us everything from data about global temperature to the ability to share data and information about climate change. Even the World Economic Forum has touted the many ways in which space technology could help solve climate change.

Yet, as it turns out, there could be some drawbacks to all that data and technology. Those same advanced satellites we use for tracking data, sending an email, or checking the latest temperature in Poughkeepsie could be contributing to climate change.

According to a new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), satellites are leaving tiny bits of rare earth materials in the atmosphere when they burn up upon reentry into the earth's atmosphere. The researchers were astounded to find elements like niobium, hafnium, aluminum, copper and lithium in the upper atmosphere, especially because they weren't looking for them.

Niobium, hafnium, and lithium are rare earth metals used to make tech components like batteries and heat-resistant, high-performance alloys, which are used on satellites and rockets. Those metals are creating a cause for concern about the future of climate change because they affect the atmosphere in a number of potentially detrimental ways.

The Space Race for a Data-Hungry World

The space race has been increasingly privatized, with corporations like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper promising to launch nearly 10,000 satellites into orbit within the next few years. According to the European Space Agency’s latest Space Debris Report, more satellites were launched in 2022 than any year before.

Space X has launched around 2,000 Starlink internet satellites, completing its first orbital shell in May 2022. Since then, regular launches have taken place, and according to a July story (and stunning animation of the Starlink shells) in The New York Times, there are more than 4500 satellites in orbit now.

In early October, Project Kuiper, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, launched its first internet satellite. Bezos has said that he plans to launch more than 3,200 satellites over the next few years with the goal of providing broadband internet service to US customers in 2024​. There are currently more than 10,300 satellites orbiting the earth. Of those, more than 80% are active, and 53% are Starlink satellites.

All of this points to a fact that should go without saying: As the world becomes even more reliant on connectivity, the demand for more communications satellites will only increase. Those satellites, eventually, will have to go out of service and crash back to earth. That raises some concern for the researchers behind the PNAS study.

They note, "The space industry has entered an era of rapid growth. With tens of thousands of small satellites planned for low earth orbit, that increased mass will be divided into many more reentry events. Given that 10% of stratospheric particles now contain enhanced aluminum, with many more reentry events, it is likely that in the next few decades, the percentage of stratospheric sulfuric acid particles that contain aluminum and other metals from satellite reentry will be comparable to the roughly 50% that now contain meteoric metals."

Copper Snow and "Different Light Scattering

The authors say that around 10% of the aerosol particles in the stratosphere contain bits of burnt-up satellite. And that while it's still hard to say what impacts these aerosols might have on the ground, the authors point out that adding thousands of planned satellites to the ones already airborne could alter the stratospheric aerosol layer in significant ways.

For one, the prevalence of these materials in the stratosphere could impact how ice forms in the atmosphere.

According to the report: "Novel ice nuclei can have a large effect even at low concentrations because polar stratospheric clouds nucleate on a small fraction of the particles. Analogues of meteoric inclusions in sulfuric acid have been shown to be ice nuclei. Metal cations can also induce efflorescence in aerosol particles. The results in this paper prompted us to reanalyze some of our own older mass spectra. We have identified spacecraft reentry particles in ice residuals from high-altitude cirrus sampled in 2002, although not at a notably different frequency than meteoric elements."

They also note that an increase in the tiny bits of burnt-up space junk could cause a "different light scattering and radiative forcing." However, they don't elaborate on what implications that might have for climate change and global warming.

One possibility that they do note, however, is that “if 10% of the copper vaporized in a future reentry scenario were to be deposited on Antarctica, it could possibly double the concentration of copper in Antarctic snow as roughly estimated from total snowfall and copper in recent snow.”

This isn't the first time researchers have raised concerns about space junk. In 2021, The New York Times reported on a research paper presented at the European Conference on Space Debris that noted that an increasing amount of space junk could result in changes to the atmosphere caused by carbon dioxide emissions and potentially increase the amount of debris that stays in orbit.

Space Junk Contributes to More Than Just Climate Change, and It’s Been a Problem for Awhile

In addition to the climate impact of all that space junk cluttering up the atmosphere, there's the impact that the increasing number of satellites has on astronomy. Astronomers have been sounding the alarm about low-earth orbit satellites, which have been making dark skies brighter (satellites reflect light back to earth) and threatening ground-based astronomy, as this story notes.

While we are clearly insatiable when it comes to data consumption and connectivity, and the resulting space race is only accelerating, a lot more research will need to be done to understand the direct effects of space junk on climate change.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett