Satellite Megaconstellations Threaten Ozone Layer Recovery, Study Finds

A recent study has raised alarms about the potential environmental impact of satellite megaconstellations, revealing that the increasing number of satellites might jeopardize the recovery of the Earth’s ozone layer. The findings highlight the urgent need for sustainable space practices.

As the growing number of satellites orbiting Earth promises to enhance global communication networks, it also poses a significant environmental threat. A groundbreaking study by researchers from the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering warns that satellite megaconstellations could jeopardize the recovery of the ozone layer.

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, reveals that when satellites re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, they release aluminum oxide nanoparticles that can deplete the ozone layer. These findings come at a critical time, as efforts to recover from the damage caused by ozone-depleting substances, previously regulated under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, have been underway for decades.

“Only in recent years have people started to think this might become a problem,” Joseph Wang, a researcher in astronautics at the University of Southern California and the corresponding author of the study, said in a statement. “We were one of the first teams to look at what the implication of these facts might be.”

Potential Threat to Ozone Recovery

According to the study, the amount of aluminum oxides in the atmosphere has increased eightfold between 2016 and 2022. If the planned satellite constellations are fully deployed, the release of these nanoparticles could surge by 646% over natural atmospheric levels.

The researchers found that a typical 250-kilogram (550-pound) satellite produces about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of aluminum oxide particles upon reentry. In 2022 alone, the reentry of satellites contributed to a 29.5% increase in aluminum levels in the atmosphere.

Aluminum oxides trigger chemical reactions that destroy stratospheric ozone, which shields Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. These nanoparticles can continue to cause damage for decades, as they gradually descend through the stratosphere.

Proliferation of Satellites

The exponential growth in the number of low-Earth-orbit satellites, driven by the demand for global internet coverage, has led to an increase in satellite launches. Companies like SpaceX, with its Starlink project, are at the forefront of this initiative, having launched thousands of satellites in recent years. SpaceX plans to launch up to 42,000 more Starlink satellites. Other companies, including Amazon, are also contributing to this surge with large-scale satellite constellations.

The study’s findings add a new dimension to the environmental risks associated with space missions, previously focused mainly on rocket fuel emissions. By highlighting the long-term impact of satellite debris, the research underscores the urgent need for sustainable space practices.

Looking Ahead

As satellite technology continues to evolve, it is crucial that policymakers, space agencies and corporations work together to mitigate environmental impacts. Innovative solutions and regulations could ensure that the benefits of satellite mega-constellations do not come at the cost of our planet’s atmospheric health.

The study, titled “Potential Ozone Depletion from Satellite Demise during Atmospheric Reentry in the Era of Satellite Mega-Constellations,” is available for public access and further underscores the pivotal role of ongoing research in safeguarding Earth’s environment.