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Ticking Time Bomb: Space Junk Is Eating Away at Earth’s Ozone Layer

Ticking Time Bomb: Space Junk Is Eating Away at Earth’s Ozone Layer

SpaceX Satellite

Thousands of satellites have been deployed into “megaconstellations” to fulfill the growing need for worldwide internet services, with many more planned for launch soon. However, these compact satellites have a brief operational life and are known to emit pollutants that can harm the ozone layer when they disintegrate upon reentry. A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters has, for the first time, quantified the extent of this pollution. Credit: SpaceX/public domain

When internet-providing satellites — now being launched by the thousands — reach the end of their service life, the remnants from their incineration in Earth’s atmosphere will initiate chemical reactions that deplete stratospheric ozone.

When outdated satellites re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate, they release small aluminum oxide particles that erode the Earth’s ozone layer. A recent study reveals that the presence of these particles has surged eightfold from 2016 to 2022 and is expected to keep rising with the growing number of satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol successfully regulated ozone-damaging CFCs to protect the ozone layer, shrinking the ozone hole over Antarctica with recovery expected in the next fifty years. However, the unexpected increase in aluminum oxides could interrupt the progress made in ozone recovery in the coming decades.

Of the 8,100 objects in low Earth orbit, 6,000 are Starlink satellites launched in the last few years. Demand for global internet coverage is driving a rapid ramp-up of launches of small communication satellite swarms…

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