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The case for space environmentalism

Abstract

The shell bound by the Karman line at a height of ~80–100 km above the Earth’s surface and geosynchronous orbit at ~36,000 km is defined as the orbital space surrounding the Earth. It is within this region, and especially in low Earth orbit, where environmental issues are becoming urgent because of the rapid growth of the anthropogenic space object population, including satellite ‘mega-constellations’. In this Perspective, we summarize the case for considering the orbital space around the Earth as an additional ecosystem, subject to the same care and concerns, and the same broad regulations as the oceans and the atmosphere, for example. We rely on the orbital space environment by looking through it, as well as by working within it. Hence, we should consider damage to professional astronomy, public stargazing, and the cultural importance of the sky, as well as the sustainability of commercial, civic, and military activity in space. Damage to the orbital space environment has problematic features in common with other types of environmental issue. First, the observed and predicted damage is incremental and complex, with many contributors. Second, whether or not space is formally and legally seen as a global commons, the growing commercial exploitation of what may seem to be a ‘free’ resource is in fact externalizing the true costs.

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Fig. 1: The growth of all tracked objects in space over time.
Fig. 2: Visualization of the currently tracked objects in LEO.
Fig. 3: Visualization of 4,000 ASOs in various orbital neighbourhoods.
Fig. 4: An image of the sky taken by the Dark Energy Survey camera in 2019.
Fig. 5: An observation made using the Hubble Space Telescope in November 2020.
Fig. 6: The evolution of the satellite population, debris population and cumulative collisions for scenarios at a height of 600 km with frequent de-orbiting.

Data availability

The datasets and Jupyter notebooks used in the construction of Figs. 1, 2 and 6 are available via GitHub at https://github.com/andyxerxes/Space-environment-paper. The datasets used for Fig. 3 are available at https://doi.org/10.18738/T8/LHX5KM.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to H. G. Lewis at the University of Southampton for providing a dataset of orbital elements of simulated debris from the recent C1408 ASAT event, as well as for general discussions on the topic of space environmentalism. Many other colleagues have contributed indirectly to this Perspective through comments on the open document during August 2021 in preparation for the Amicus Brief, and general discussions at astronomical meetings during 2020 and 2021 at which the issue of the impact of constellations was discussed.

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The Perspective was conceived, initiated and led by A.L. The initial draft was written by A.L. in collaboration with M.L.R. and M.J., who also wrote major parts of the text. All other authors contributed significant text or key technical or scientific points.

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Correspondence to Andy Lawrence.

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Lawrence, A., Rawls, M.L., Jah, M. et al. The case for space environmentalism. Nat Astron 6, 428–435 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01655-6

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