Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023
The Environmental Impact of Low Earth Orbit Satellites

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of low Earth orbit satellites deployed. These satellites, including SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, and OneWeb, are designed to provide global Internet coverage to remote areas. However, this method of delivering connectivity is proving to be more environmentally harmful compared to traditional terrestrial alternatives.

One major concern is the pollution caused by the fuel burned during rocket launches and the resulting emissions. A study conducted by astrophysicists in the UK and the US predicts that over the next five years, CO2 emissions per subscriber for satellite-based Internet will be 31 to 91 times higher than those generated by equivalent terrestrial mobile broadband services.

To mitigate this pollution, it is crucial to make strategic choices in rocket design and fuel composition. Considering that numerous programs plan to launch thousands more satellites in the near future, sustainable technologies should be developed. This includes designing more environmentally-friendly rockets and satellites, as well as utilizing cleaner fuels.

Aside from pollution, satellite constellations also contribute to space debris. These satellites have a limited lifespan and cannot be recovered or recycled. When they reach the end of their life, they either disintegrate upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere or remain in orbit indefinitely. This waste and potential debris pose significant risks, such as creating holes in the ozone layer due to emissions from the combustion of satellite materials.

Efforts are being made to address this issue of waste in space. Projects have been proposed to retrieve and dispose of multiple satellites by sending dedicated spacecraft to explode them upon re-entry. Another idea is to establish a refueling service for satellites in orbit, reducing the need for constant replacements.

In conclusion, while low Earth orbit satellite constellations have the potential to bring Internet access to remote areas, they come with significant environmental challenges. The high levels of emissions and the accumulation of space debris highlight the need for sustainable technologies and waste management solutions in satellite design and operation.