Chemicals released as defunct satellites burn in the atmosphere could damage Earth’s protective ozone layer if plans to build megaconstellations of tens of thousands of satellites, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, go ahead as foreseen, scientists warn.
Researchers also caution that the poorly understood atmospheric processes triggered by those chemicals could lead to an uncontrolled geoengineering experiment, the consequences of which are unknown.
For years, the space community was 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 defunct satellites meeting the same fate. Even the rise of megaconstellations won’t change that. The problem, however, is in the different chemical composition of natural meteoroids compared to artificial satellites, according to Aaron Boley, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
“We have 54 tonnes (60 tons) of meteoroid material coming in every day,” Boley, one of the authors of a paper published May 20 in the journal Scientific Reports, told Space.com. “With the first generation of Starlink, we can expect about 2 tonnes (2.2 tons) of dead satellites reentering Earth’s atmosphere daily. But meteoroids are mostly rock, which is made of oxygen, magnesium and silicon. These satellites are mostly aluminum, which the meteoroids contain only in a very small amount, about 1%.”