Environmental impacts of space technology

Gaston, K.J., Anderson, K., Shutler, J.D., Brewin, R.J.W. & Yan, X. 2023. Environmental impacts of increasing numbers of space objects. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 21, 289-296.

For much of their existence, the environmental benefits of artificial satellites, particularly through provision of remotely sensed data, seem likely to have greatly exceeded their environmental costs. With dramatic current and projected growth in the number of Earth-observation and other satellites in low Earth orbit, this trade-off now needs to be considered more carefully. Here we highlight the range of environmental impacts of satellite technology, taking a life-cycle approach to evaluate impacts from manufacture, through launch, to burn-up during de-orbiting. These include the use of renewable and nonrenewable resources (including those associated with the transmission, long-term storage, and distribution of data), atmospheric consequences of rocket launches and satellite de-orbiting, and impacts of a changing nighttime sky on humans and other organisms. Initial estimations of the scale of some impacts are sufficient to underscore the need for more detailed investigations and to identify potential means by which impacts can be reduced and mitigated.