Outer space, once an uncharted territory, has now become full of chaos and danger. A new study by scientists from the University of Malaga (UMA) reveals the dark side of space research and satellite technology. Space debris is a threat to space exploration as well as to our planet.
The growing number of extinct objects in space is a direct result of human activity outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The mess we have made of space can prepare us for a potentially devastating future. Since the launch of the first satellite in 1957, space debris has steadily increased. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there are now more than 131 million pieces of space debris. They range in size from one millimeter to ten centimeters and travel around the world at 36,000 kilometers per hour.
Rocket debris, malfunctioning satellites and even derelict astronaut tools make up the mess. The debris poses a serious threat to active satellites and future space missions. “Any piece larger than one centimeter is potentially deadly in the event of a collision,” scientists warn.
Researchers at the University of Malaga conducted a project on space economics that used quantitative analysis to create a theoretical model describing the optimal satellite launch rate based on the existing amount of space debris. Using data from NASA and ESA, the model uses computational modeling to investigate the effect of anti-satellite tests on the amount of space debris and the subsequent probability of collisions with active satellites. There are currently about 6,000 satellites orbiting the Earth.
UMA researchers dynamically calculated the amount of space debris based on the optimal behavior of space companies in determining satellite launch rates and the number of satellites. Their study shows that the amount of space debris negatively affects the number of launches and satellites. “The calculations also show that anti-satellite testing generates more than 102,000 new pieces of this debris greater than one centimeter in size and that its negative effects disappear after 1,000 years because of the high altitude at which testing takes place,” the researchers said.
The experts approached the study of space debris from an economic perspective. They view space as a global commons that, like the high seas, is at risk of overexploitation. This approach emphasizes the absence of direct regulation beyond the non-binding United Nations International Treaty. As a consequence, they identify a clear “market failure” where lack of property rights encourages misuse of the resource, resulting in negative externalities.
Researchers express concern that our growing dependence on technology companies operating in space implies a steady increase in space debris. At the same time, the likelihood of collision increases. “We face a huge unregulated market with problems that have only just begun,” they wrote.
The space debris situation requires immediate action. Strict international rules and regulations must be developed to control space debris, and to prevent its further increase. In addition, there is a need to invest in technology to clean up space debris and develop safer and more efficient ways to launch satellites.
Space must be preserved as a valuable resource for future generations. We cannot allow space debris to destroy our opportunities and prospects in space.