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Satellite internet could soon make fast internet access available at almost any location on the earth without the need to lay massive amounts of fibre optic cable. While the technology could vastly improve global communications, it also brings with it a number of problems that include environmental issues and abandoned orbital space debris.
Populating the atmosphere with tens of thousands of satellites has been called an unproven ‘geoengineering experiment‘. There is an issue with pollution in just building a constellation of satellites, for example, just the carbon cost from the ignition and fuel burn to launch the satellites into orbit. Then there are also issues when satellites reach their end of life. Many will burn and fall back to earth. But when satellites burn they release chemicals into the atmosphere. Scientists worry that the composition of the upper atmosphere will change as a result of satellite burns.
Aaron Boley, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, told space.com that “we have 54 tonnes (60 tons) of meteoroid material coming in every day. With the first generation of Starlink, we can expect about 2 tonnes (2.2 tons) of dead satellites reentering Earth’s atmosphere daily. But meteoroids are mostly rock, which is made of oxygen, magnesium and silicon. These satellites are mostly aluminum, which the meteoroids contain only in a very small amount, about 1%. Alumina reflects light at certain wavelengths and if you dump enough alumina into the atmosphere, you are going to create scattering and eventually change the albedo of the planet.”
Related to the environmental problem is the danger of introducing many large man-made satellites. A large amount of space junk is accumulating in the atmosphere, and the debris increases the risk to injury to astronauts or to other satellites. By one estimate, our atmosphere already contains more than 6000 tons of abandonded and inactive space junk.
Boley said that “the problem is that there are now plans to launch about 55,000 satellites. Starlink second generation could consist of up to 30,000 satellites, then you have Starnet, which is China’s response to Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, and OneWeb. That could lead to unprecedented changes to the Earthâ€™s upper atmosphere.”