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Controversial paper warns falling space junk could weaken earth’s magnetic field

Published Mar 15th, 2024 8:16PM EDT
space junk around Earth
Image: JPL

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Earth’s orbit is absolutely littered with space junk, and every new rocket we send into space creates another opportunity for trash to be created. We know it’s a problem, and many are working on solutions that could help the junk fall back to Earth. Now, though, a controversial new paper warns that falling space junk could actually weaken Earth’s magnetic field.

It’s an intriguing proposition and one that has garnered some support as well as some skepticism. The new paper appears on the pre-print database arXiv and has yet to be peer-reviewed. However, the authors of the paper recently told LiveScience that the uncontrolled expansion of commercial satellites, most notably the “mega-constellations” like those used by Starlink, could cut the Earth’s magnetic field in half.

If that happens, the author of the paper argues that we could see atmospheric stripping, as well as other satellite disasters. The cause of all of these troubles would come from the vaporization of metal as the satellites fall back to Earth. Burning up on re-entry is a common death for satellites, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen warnings about its effects on Earth.

Others have argued that spacecraft burning up on re-entry could lead to the development of polar stratospheric clouds, which would damage the ozone layer. This would make our planet more susceptible to the solar radiation that the Sun shoots our way, and all around it might not be a great thing. This new paper, though, takes things a step further in the fight against falling space junk.

how greenhouse gas effect could change earth-like planet
Atmospheric stripping would cause more radiation to make it through Earth’s atmosphere, changing the planet exponentially. Image source: Thibaut Roger / UNIGE

Of course, not everyone is convinced about this new argument. But it does raise some intriguing questions that we will probably need to answer at some point. Most notable is the question of what happens to the dust that falling space junk leaves behind. The author of the new research argues that it could settle in the upper part of the ionosphere, where it could create a “conductive net” around our planet.

This net would then likely cause the magnetosphere, which typically extends for thousands of miles into space, to be trapped under the conductive net. That would weaken the magnetosphere exponentially and could expose satellites and even future space stations to even more solar radiation than they are already exposed to. That could lead to other issues, too.

Even if the magnetosphere doesn’t shrink, the paper’s author says that the dust created by falling space junk could still cause issues with electronics onboard launching spacecraft. The atmospheric stripping I mentioned earlier is part of the paper’s suggested “worst-case scenario,” which would see radiation stripping away the outer edges of the atmosphere, as we believe it happened on other planets like Mercury and Mars.

But, as I mentioned earlier, not everyone is convinced of the danger that falling space junk might pose. One expert told LiveScience that a conductive shell like the one mentioned in the paper is extremely unlikely while also adding that the scenarios and information posited in the paper are too simplified and thus not likely to be correct at all.

Unfortunately, nobody has really modeled how falling space junk and the dust it leaves behind might settle in the atmosphere or even how long it would last. As such, there’s currently no proof to help the arguments made in the paper. It will be intriguing to see how it holds up to any other peer reviews going forward.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.