Satellites are leading the charge in the battle against climate change, providing critical insights about Earth that can only be gained from space. But are they also contributing to the problem?
Putting aside environmental impacts of the rockets that launch them to orbit, satellites inject a complex mix of chemicals into the atmosphere when their computers, fuel tanks and other onboard materials vaporize upon reentry.
This wasn’t much of a talking point decades ago when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined, categorically, that nothing it regulates in space could have an environmental impact on Earth.
Until recently, the number of satellites in space was so small, and their orbits usually so high, that there were very few re-entries.
However, the rise of Starlink and other megaconstellations with thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are changing this.
Around 9,000 artificial satellites have been launched into space since Sputnik-1 became the first in 1957. In 2020 alone, SpaceX launched more than 800 satellites for a Starlink LEO broadband network that will provide continuous global coverage.
The ultimate destiny of LEO satellites is to burn up in the atmosphere after running out of fuel, pointing to an unprecedented number of ...