Above our heads, man-made satellites wage war against the stars. On Earth, a handful of CEOs plan to put hundreds of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit—in addition to the 5,0001 satellites already launched. Altogether, these satellites will outnumber the stars visible to the naked eye tenfold.
In a previous article, I described mega-constellations of satellites for telecommunications and discussed astronomers’ deep concerns about them. I’m a star-gazer myself. Learning about the environmental impacts of this unprecedented space program continues to shock me.
Elon, honey, can you take out the space trash tonight?
Since the 1950s, communication satellites have been used for long-distance voice and data transfer. Most satellites never come back to Earth; at the end of their useful life, they become garbage. Today, millions of objects orbit the Earth. Most of them no longer function: they’re space junk.
Moriba Jah2 from Texas University explains that some objects are as tiny as a speck of paint; some are as big as a school bus. Less than one percent of these objects are tracked. Objects smaller than 10 cm (four inches) cannot be tracked. Traveling at several kilometres per second (tens of thousands of kilometers per hour), space debris sometimes collide or explode, creating even more small, untrackable, hazardous objects that can damage useful satellites or inhabited spaceships.
There are no traffic rules in space3. In 2020, the inhabited International Space Station (ISS) nearly had three catastrophic collisions with space debris. Satellite operators do not always share information and their opinions on the location of space debris can differ. In 2019, a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite risked colliding with one of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites—but the Agency could not reach Starlink’s operators. The ESA’s satellite had to change orbit, quickly.
When space becomes too crowded with debris, a series of collisions occur. Each collision produces more debris, increasing risk of yet more collisions. Called the Kessler Syndrome4, we can only manage it by actively removing our telecom junk from space.
Nature’s1 May 2021 report reveals that each of Elon Musk’s satellites operates for only five to six years—less than a personal computer. Musk swears he’ll take out his trash by having dead satellites re-enter the atmosphere and turn into dust. So, beside his 42,000 functioning satellites, expect an additional 4,200 de-orbiting satellites at all times. Expect 8,400 new satellites launched each year to replace the ones that no longer work.
Every day, Starlink alone can produce about six tons of electronic waste that re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. This junk increases the risk of cascading collisions with untracked debris. Indeed, “a major fragmentation event from a single satellite could affect all [satellite] operators in LEO [Low Earth Orbit]”.1
Make a wish on a falling satellite!
During satellites’ re-entry into the atmosphere, pieces large enough to harm people, wildlife and property can fall. NASA recommends a human casualty risk lower than 1/10,000 per satellite re-entry. However, launching permits do not consider the cumulative or combined risks of launching hundreds of thousands of satellites. Operators do not always respect safety standards1. Scientists find that pieces larger than 10 cm might not fully disintegrate when they fall back to Earth5, and yet SpaceX claims that their next-generation satellites will completely turn into dust. No agency has tested this claim; and no agency can require other satellite operators to turn their debris into dust.
If you watch a falling satellite, make a wish that everyone will stay safe!
Chemicals and ozone depletion
During a satellite launch, rocket fuels (e.g. hydrazine) and rocket parts that contain hazardous substances may fall into the ocean and harm marine life.1
In the upper atmosphere, high temperatures (generated by friction) lead to the formation of ozone-consuming chemicals.6 Ozone provides a protective layer around the Earth. Depleting it can increase people's exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet light and cause skin cancer.
Forty years ago, NASA scientist Michael Zolensky was looking for comet and asteroid dust in the high atmosphere. Mostly, he found particles of rocket exhaust, spacecraft protection paints and aluminium. Do space engineers know this? Martin Ross of The Aerospace Corporation confirms a lack of interdisciplinary communication. Scientists and engineers need to talk—but “that usually doesn't happen."
Starlink’s average daily satellite waste (six tons) will dramatically increase aluminium deposits in the stratosphere7. When the aluminium in satellite cases burns, aluminium oxide (alumina) forms and can deplete the ozone layer. Would wooden satellite cases (developed in Japan) be less harmful?
But solid-fuel rockets cause the most damage to the ozone layer—because of their hydrogen chloride and alumina emissions1.
Weather forecasts and global warming
Deploying 5G networks that use millimetre wave frequencies on the Earth’s surface could significantly jam satellite weather and climate observations8. Besides Earth-based 5G radio-frequencies, even higher frequencies used by future satellite constellations could interfere with weather observations. Facebook’s constellation is still experimental, but it might use frequencies near 88.2 gigahertz, which weather-observing satellites9 currently use.
Space launches have significant global warming effects1. Some satellite-launching rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 consume liquid kerosene and release black carbon. Solid-fuelled rockets produce alumina particles. All of these increase the greenhouse effect. Global warming from kerosene rockets has been modelled for 1,000 annual rocket launches during one decade. Scientists find that these kerosene rockets’ greenhouse effects are comparable to pre-Covid emissions from aviation.
SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, fuelled by liquid methane, can launch 400 Starlink satellites at one time. Methane combustion produces soot that increases global warming. Liquid rocket fuels can also impact cloud formations—and the Earth’s climate.
Radiation all over (and above) the Earth’s surface
The magnetosphere (the magnetic envelope surrounding the Earth) shields our planet from solar and cosmic particle radiation. How/does microwave radiation emitted by satellites impact it?
The Van Allen belts surround and protect the Earth with electric charges. Could satellites’ microwave radiation emission drain the belts’ electrons into the atmosphere, and change its electric properties?
How are the Schumann resonances, the electromagnetic “heartbeat” of the atmosphere to which living beings on Earth are attuned, affected by satellites’ emissions?
Satellites beam massive amounts of microwave radiation day and night from within the magnetosphere and through the atmosphere. What effect does this have on the magnetosphere and the electromagnetic balance of all life? Should subject matter experts study this before we deploy any more satellites?
There are very few studies of millimetre waves’ impacts on plants and animals10. Consequently, predicting the effects of tens of thousands of satellites beaming millimetre waves on biodiversity is nearly impossible. As long as we fail to limit deployments, we risk increasing loss of biodiversity.
Unlike Earth-based networks, satellite constellations will virtually radiate even areas with low population density. There will be no place for humans and wildlife to escape microwave radiation—or its potentially harmful effects.
The Earth’s gigantic electric circuit allows a permanent flow of electrons from the ionosphere to the planet’s surface, and back to the ionosphere when lightning strikes. According to Eastern medicine, this electric current flows supportively through our chakras and meridians. The potential health effects of satellites beaming radiation from the ionosphere—and interfering with the Earth’s natural electromagnetic fields—have not been studied.
Who’s in charge?
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty defines countries’ liability regarding the consequences of launching rockets from their soil. Despite good intentions, this treaty allows nations and corporations to fill space with unlimited numbers of spacecraft.
We need limits, regulation and monitoring here—and yet the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) endorses unbridled deployments. ITU only prohibits new equipment from interfering with existing equipment. The first operator to be awarded access to a specific frequency or orbit may continue renewing their license forever and prevent other operators from accessing that frequency or orbit. New ITU rules require an operator to put satellites in service shortly after filing the application. Such policies favour large companies who can produce satellites industrially and meet these time requirements.
The U.S. awarded Starlink almost $900 million of public funds to provide Internet coverage to rural users. The corporation uses taxpayers’ money to cover dense cities as well, suggesting that public funding supports wireless technologies—rather than more energy-efficient and secure wired connections.
Ever-increasing space debris can be limited by disintegrating (de-orbiting) satellites in the atmosphere. However, there are no binding rules for satellite operators. Current guidelines are obsolete and inappropriate for mega-constellations. Aaron Boley, from the University of British Columbia, reported that these emergent mega-constellations will need better governance—and fast. Could aerospace engineers evaluate and mitigate cumulated risks from mega-constellations? Could potential risks to the environment, climate and health be weighed along with risks from falling satellite debris? Is the ITU up to these tasks?
What matters more: allowing wealthy corporations to build whatever they want, unabated—or respecting Heaven and Earth and limiting telecom growth?
A solar flare could turn off the sat-lights
Solar flares11 are among the most violent events in our solar system. They occur when the sun’s magnetic field brutally and suddenly changes, emitting huge amounts of electrically-charged particles at thousands of kilometres per second. When a powerful solar flare hit the Earth in 1859, it created a solar storm that set North American telegraph offices on fire and showcased Northern Lights over Hawaii12.
If a similar flare reached the Earth today, it would knock out all satellites—and satellite-dependent Internet access and banking systems. It could shut down power grids for months!13 Back in the year 774, a solar flare 20 times larger may have hit our planet. In 1989, a much milder event caused a large-scale 9-hour power outage in Quebec, and satellites lost control. While we now can predict major solar flares a few days before they hit us and preventively shut down power grids, satellites remain vulnerable.
Satellite mega-constellations can provide super-fast Internet connectivity to consumers and mobile network operators anywhere on Earth. However, their impacts on the environment have hardly been studied—while first reports mention substantial effects on climate change. Rocket launches produce a variety of substances with highly potent greenhouse effects. Dust produced from the disintegration of satellites could also accelerate global warming.
In terms of data speed and security, fibre optics and cables are far better alternatives; they also provide excellent latency. The slightly lower latencies proposed by mega-constellations are essentially useful to automated financial trading. Some constellation operators propose using many less satellites—which could provide a much better balance between quality of service, environmental impacts and cost.
Space is an under-regulated realm. Large, private corporations can deploy technology without limits—and then hold nations liable for their mistakes. Given the unknown consequences of deploying satellite mega-constellations on the environment, health and astronomy, we urgently need international regulations designed by subject-matter experts. Let’s stop blindly promoting and accepting wireless technologies such as 5G and satellites mega-constellations. Let’s support sustainable wired technologies, even in remote areas. Very isolated areas can enjoy broadband Internet with tens of satellites, not tens of thousands.
Consumers can demand that local Internet service providers provide speedy, reliable and affordable wired broadband. Driven by knowledge of climate change and the Earth’s limited resources, entrepreneurs and engineers should make the best possible use of the technology and infrastructure we already have. Launching thousands of satellites might meet the goals of a few greedy billionaires, but not of a sustainable society.
1 Aaron C. Boley & Michael Byers, Satellite mega‑constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on Earth, May 2021. Note: 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit would produce almost 2 tons of debris daily. 42,000 satellites would produce almost 6 tons daily.
2 Moriba Jah, The world’s first crowdsourced space traffic monitoring system, TED Talk, 2019.
3 Anusuya Datta, What are we doing about space traffic management?, January 2021.
4 Leonard David, Space Junk Removal Is Not Going Smoothly, April 2021.
5 How Everything Works, Popular Science Special Edition, 2019.
6 Leonard David, Space Junk May Be Harming Earth's Atmosphere, 2009 (updated 2015).
7 Mike Brown, SpaceX Starlink: how it could kickstart an ‘uncontrolled experiment’, May 2021.
8 Alexandra Witze, Global 5G wireless deal threatens weather forecasts, 2019.
9 Sidharth Misra, American Meteorological Society conference, 2019.
10 Arno Thielens, Effects on Wildlife (Flora and Fauna) of 5G, EU Parliament STOA initiative, May 2021.
11 CNRS Press Release : Une nouvelle piste pour prédire les éruptions solaires ? Observatory of Paris, 2017.
12 Tony Phillips, Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm, NASA Science News, 2011.
13 Nicola Jones, Planetary disasters: It could happen one night, Nature, 2013.