UW News

April 22, 2022

Heavens need environmental protection just like Earth, experts say

Starlink satellites over the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, photographed shortly after launch.M. Lewinsky

Space urgently needs special legal protection similar to that given to land, sea and atmosphere to protect its fragile environment, argues a team of scientists. The scientific, economic and cultural benefits of space should be considered against the damaging environmental impacts posed by an influx of space debris — roughly 60 miles above Earth’s surface — fueled by the rapid growth of so-called satellite mega-constellations.

In a paper published April 22 in Nature Astronomy, the authors assert that space is an important environment to preserve on behalf of professional astronomers, amateur stargazers and Indigenous peoples.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” said co-author Meredith Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and the University of Washington’s Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology Institute, or DiRAC Institute.

The team, led by Andy Lawrence, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy, reports that the installation of large clusters of hardware in Earth orbit — some consisting of tens of thousands of satellites to deliver broadband to Earth — are congesting space. In addition, rocket launches are polluting the atmosphere and pieces of broken satellites, which race at high speed through orbital space, threaten working satellites in their path. Streaks from satellite flares also cause light pollution, which increasingly disrupts research.

The Chile-based Rubin Observatory, which aims to carry out a 10-year astrophysical survey, is predicted to be badly affected, for example.

“Rubin Observatory will be one of the most severely impacted astronomy facilities by large numbers of bright satellites due to its large mirror and wide field of view — the same characteristics that make it such a remarkable engine for discovery,” said Rawls. “I care a lot about how satellite streaks affect science, but the case for dark and quiet skies is much larger than that.”

Addressing these issues will require a holistic approach that treats orbital space as part of the environment and worthy of environmental protection at both national and international levels, said the authors. They urge policymakers to consider the environmental impacts of all aspects of satellite constellations — including their launch, operation and de-orbit — and to work collaboratively to create a shared, ethical, sustainable approach to space.

“We are standing on a watershed in history,” said Lawrence. “We can cheaply launch huge numbers of satellites and use them to the benefit of life on Earth — but this comes at a cost. As well as damaging stargazing, the space industry may be shooting itself in the foot.”

Starlink satellites passing overhead near the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, photographed soon after launch.M. Lewinsky

Rawls has also been involved in efforts to protect and preserve the night sky through the recently established International Astronomical Union Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference. The center aims to bring together sky-observer stakeholders to collaborate on quantifying, mitigating and disseminating the impacts of satellites.

The new article in Nature Astronomy stems in part from a legal case related to how the U.S. government licenses and authorizes commercial space launches. An amicus brief — filed on behalf of Lawrence with input from Rawls and co-author Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin — argues that U.S. environmental regulations should apply to the licensing of space launches. The case, which could set a precedent in the growing campaign for “space environmentalism,” is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“We believe that all things are interconnected and that we must embrace stewardship as if our lives depended on it,” said Jah. “Traditional ecological knowledge holds a key to solving this wicked problem.”

Jah recently co-founded the startup Privateer Space together with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding, CEO of Ripcord. Privateer Space plans to take a novel approach to mapping the objects in orbit accurately, in nearly real-time, to enable the sustainable use of space by a growing number of operators.

“The largest challenge we have is in recruiting empathy and compassion toward solving these environmental crises,” said Jah. “If we can find innovative ways to enable the general public to project themselves into this dire condition, and feel concern to address it, the Earth, and all of the lives she sustains, wins.”

Other co-authors on the paper are Aaron Boley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia; Federico Di Vruno, a scientist with the Square Kilometre Array Observatory, based in the U.K.; Simon Garrington, associate director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester; Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany; Samantha Lawler, assistant professor of physics at the University of Regina in Canada; James Lowenthal, professor of astronomy at Smith College; Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor with the European Space Agency.

For more information, contact Rawls at mrawls@uw.edu.

Adapted from a press release by the University of Edinburgh.