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  • Writer's pictureSofia Ng

The Hidden Environmental Cost of Starlink and Other Mega-Constellations

Updated: May 18

We have all heard of starlink but have we considered the space junk accumulation?

A study reveals that the carbon footprint of these satellite constellations could be up to 30 times larger than traditional land-based internet options.

As the digital frontier expands (we want internet EVERYWHERE), so does the environmental impact. Researchers in the US and UK have crunched the numbers, and the results are staggering. Rocket launches, like those of SpaceX, are spewing out emissions like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, contributing significantly to the carbon footprint.

The rapid expansion of satellite mega-constellations, such as SpaceX's Starlink, Amazon's Project Kuiper, and OneWeb, has ushered in a new era of global broadband coverage. While these constellations promise to connect unconnected communities and contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals, a recent study reveals a significant and overlooked environmental impact associated with their deployment.

Carbon Footprint Surges

The study, conducted by researchers in the US and UK, delves into the environmental externalities of rocket launches required to place new satellites in space. The carbon footprint of satellite constellations, particularly in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), is causing concern. The emissions from rocket launches, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, black carbon, and aluminum oxide, contribute to a substantial carbon footprint. The research indicates that the carbon footprint per subscriber could be 31 to 91 times larger than that of traditional land-based internet options.

Comparing Mega-Constellations

The study examines phase 1 of three primary Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations: Amazon Kuiper, OneWeb, and SpaceX Starlink. In baseline scenarios spanning five years, the research identifies different per-subscriber carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) values. Kuiper is measured at 0.70 ± 0.34 tonnes, OneWeb at 1.41 ± 0.71 tonnes, and Starlink at 0.47 ± 0.15 tonnes. Nevertheless, under the worst-case emissions scenario, these values increase substantially, underscoring the urgent need to address negative environmental impacts.

SpaceX's Starlink as a Relative Eco-Champion

Despite the concerns, SpaceX's Starlink emerges as a relative eco-champion due to its larger customer base, which helps spread emissions thinner. Amazon's Project Kuiper, powered by Europe's Ariane 6 rocket system, poses a greater environmental impact, emitting higher levels of certain particles.

The Burning Question

As the study raises the burning question of the growing carbon footprint as satellites burn up in the Earth's atmosphere and replacements are launched, it underscores the urgency of addressing the negative environmental impacts associated with the space sector's rapid growth.

Mitigating Negative Impacts

The study emphasizes the need for strategic choices in rocket design and fuel options to mitigate negative sustainability impacts. With phase 2 constellations proposing to increase the number of satellites by another order of magnitude, the call for comprehensive sustainability analytics becomes even more critical.

Policy Implications and Conclusion

The research not only sheds light on the environmental sustainability implications but also highlights the potential policy responses. Governments and regulatory authorities are urged to carefully balance the growth of the space sector against environmental sustainability issues, considering both launch regulations and services provided to users.

In conclusion, the hidden environmental cost of mega-constellations demands immediate attention. As the space industry evolves, the study suggests that efficient carbon pricing and strategic choices in design are essential to balance environmental impact, broadband access, and economic efficiency. The space sector, governments, and regulators need to collaborate on comprehensive sustainability strategies to ensure a sustainable future for satellite constellations.

Link to study:

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