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Satellites burning up on re-entry might not be as harmless as we thought

Published Mar 4th, 2024 9:29PM EST
burning satellite reentering Earth's atmosphere
Image: Paul Fleet / Adobe

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For years, the main way of cleaning up space junk and retired satellites has been to let them burn up as they reenter Earth’s atmosphere. For the most part, scientists have always assumed it was relatively safe. Now, though, new research suggests burning satellites up on re-entry is leaving metal particles in the atmosphere.

There are a number of reasons why metal particles being left in the atmosphere isn’t a great thing, including the fact that Business Insider reports it could lead to the development of polar stratospheric clouds. These clouds are beautiful rainbow-colored clouds. But, they hold a sinister secret; they can actually damage the ozone layer.

Considering how much junk is currently blazing through space around our planet, as well as how many satellites we’re consistently putting into orbit — including those from projects like Star Link and NASA’s various research operations — it’s extremely important to understand the possible risks we might be taking if we let them burn up on reentry.

space junk around EarthImage source: JPL

That said, it’s also important for us not to jump to conclusions and start dooming ourselves for what is happening. If scientists are able to prove that the metal particles left behind by burning satellites up in the atmosphere, then we can strive to approach the situation with a better solution — like maybe relying on wooden satellites, something that some space agencies are already testing.

Understanding the possible damage that burning satellites could do to the ozone layer is important, though, because that layer is extremely important for the state of our planet’s global temperatures. If we aren’t careful, we might damage the ozone and cause more issues with climate change.

That would only exacerbate the issues we’re already experiencing and increase the rate at which things like the Antarctic ice shelves are melting. If that happens, we could really find ourselves facing a very different world, one where entire coastlines are lost to rising sea levels.

As such, understanding the real risks of burning satellites up in reentry is going to be vital to understanding just how much our ongoing space exploration and research operations can hurt us. Ultimately, these discoveries highlight how little we know about the effects our actions in space are having on our planet, and that needs to change.

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.