Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites could damage the environment for decades, study says

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites could damage the environment for decades, study says

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites could damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer when they are deorbited, new research suggests.

Mega satellite constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink spew copious amounts of aluminium oxide gas in the atmosphere that could deplete the ozone layer, according to the research published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

SpaceX has launched more than 6,000 satellites and counting to beam internet, with each new model getting heavier.

These satellites are designed to burn up in the atmosphere when their service lives end, researchers from the University of Southern California say.

Aluminium oxides deplete ozone by causing it to react destructively with chlorine, the study says.

The oxides can stay in the atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer for decades, researchers warn.

“Only in recent years have people started to think this might become a problem,” says Joseph Wang, one of the study’s authors.

“We were one of the first teams to look at what the implication of these facts might be.”

Scientists are particularly concerned as the demand for global internet coverage is driving up launches of small communication satellites.

The ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, which can cause skin cancer on exposure and even disrupt crop yields and food production.

“The environmental impacts from the reentry of satellites are currently poorly understood,” scientists say.

A small satellite produces about 30 kg of aluminium oxides when it burns up.

In 2022 alone, researchers say, falling satellites may have contributed about 17 tonnes of tiny aluminium oxide particles.

When all the currently planned satellite constellations are in place, scientists estimate, more than 350 tonnes of aluminium oxides will be released each year.

This is a whopping increase of nearly 650 per cent over natural atmospheric levels.

SpaceX alone has permission to launch another 12,000 Starlink satellites while Amazon and other tech giants also plan to launch thousands of satellites in the coming years.

“As reentry rates increase, it is crucial to further explore the concerns highlighted in this study,” researchers say.