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New study claims Starlink satellites may be killing the ozone

Published Jun 19th, 2024 2:55PM EDT
View of Earth from space
Image: studio023 / Adobe

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Researchers at the University of Southern California have released a new study. In the study, the researchers claim that when Starlink satellites die, they’re doing more than just burning up in the atmosphere. They’re also causing ozone damage, essentially killing our planet’s protective layer with each re-entry.

This is, of course, a much bigger problem than just Starlink’s satellites, though SpaceX’s internet service is by far the most prevalent as it has launched multiple large constellations into orbit over the past several years. The big damaging factor here is the small particles of aluminum oxides that Starlink satellites leave behind when they burn up.

According to the researchers, the number of oxides in the atmosphere increased eightfold between 2016 and 2022, a number that seems to have grown as the number of low-Earth-orbit satellites has increased. Starlink has over 3,000 active satellites in orbit at any given time, and as some satellites end their service, they fall from orbit, burning up in the atmosphere. And each re-entry appears to cause some small ozone damage.

burning satellite reentering Earth's atmosphere
Satellite hurtling through space burning up as it enters the atmosphere. Image source: Paul Fleet / Adobe

While I’m not going to sit here and point the finger at Starlink solely—this is a problem indicative of a much bigger issue regarding satellites as a whole—the potential damage to the ozone layer is extremely troubling. It’s this layer that helps keep Earth’s temperature in check, and as it weakens, more solar radiation is able to pass through.

This, obviously, has a whole heap of problems behind it, including the fact that it is raising temperatures in places like the Arctic, where important ice shelves are already teetering on the edge of collapsing. While plans to refreeze the Arctic are on the docket, if SpaceX and others continue their plans to put these ozone-poisoning satellites through the atmosphere, we could end up with even more damage to the ozone than ever.

That means we’ll end up with an unending cycle of pollution. Considering we already have an enormous amount of space junk in orbit around Earth, finding ways to remove dangerous oxides from our satellites to help minimize ozone damage should be a high priority for everyone sending things into space.

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.