Why Earth could soon have Saturn-like rings made of space junk

The battle for low-Earth-orbit supremacy is creating a space junk problem of worrying proportions.

Without wanting to put a dampener on our festive cheer, it's also the time of year where we generate more waste than any other time. Wrapping paper, Christmas cards, and cardboard packaging are obvious examples. But in the UK alone, 500 tonnes of Christmas lights each year and £42million of unwanted Christmas presents are thrown into landfills each year.

Across the world, it is also estimated that 1.6 billion tonnes of food will go to waste each over the holiday period. Unfortunately, stats like these are all too familiar here on planet earth. But as we begin to explore space tourism, there are a few warning signs that the battle for low-Earth-orbit supremacy is creating a space junk problem of worrying proportions too.

Nowhere to hide from satellite light pollution

The impact of launching thousands of satellites into orbit or sending spacecraft to crash into asteroids is only just being realized. According to the European Space Agency, around 170 million pieces of space junk are currently in orbit travelling at breathtaking speeds around our mutual home. Space agencies are tracking approximately 29,590 of these objects, which vary in size from a softball to a Greyhound bus.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has made no secret of his plans to send 3,200 more satellites into orbit, and Elon Musk's Starlink has plans to launch an additional 40,000 in the decades ahead. Samantha Lawler​, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Regina, believes that without regulation, in the future, one out of every 15 points we will see in the sky will be from satellites rather than stars.

To understand the level of light pollution and how the night sky will be affected by sunlight reflected from satellite mega constellations, the team created an open-source model to predict satellites' brightness from various vantage points on Earth. The simulations indicate that we will see an increase in the natural sky brightness.

Astronomers have been warning for years that light pollution caused by an increasing number of satellites and vast quantities of space junk impacts their work. But as we begin to zoom out, light pollution could be the least of our concerns as the proliferation of space objects begins to reshape planet earth's appearance from space.

Why Earth could soon have Saturn-like rings made of space junk

The growing space junk problem hit the headlines when it was responsible for the International Space Station being forced to swerve to avoid colliding with a fragment from a vessel launched in 1994. Elsewhere, a recent inspection of the International Space Station's Canadarm2 revealed that it was also hit by orbital debris.

Another study suggests that the scale of satellite debris is on course to give Earth its very own Saturn-like rings if we continue on this path. But unlike Saturn, Earth's ring will be made up entirely of space junk. After years of moving fast and breaking things, it appears that nobody stopped to think about how surrounding Earth with clutter would one day become a problem.

The orbital debris problem took decades to create and probably takes as long to begin the clean-up process. In a conversation with the Salt Lake Tribune, University of Utah professor Jake Abbott and his colleagues revealed how they want to use magnets to suck up the debris instead of robots.

Space junk around Earth

The team believes that using robots to collect the spinning debris is impractical because robotic arms can easily get hit and create even more waste. Alternatively, magnets are believed to be a much more practical solution for cleaning up space debris. To prove this concept, the team moved a copper ball on a plastic raft in a water tank. When they placed magnets close to the ball, they not only moved but rotated it.

Scientists believe that the same method could be used to create robots that move the junk into Earth's orbit, resulting in Saturn-like rings around our planet. It is hoped that this solution could create new and innovative ways to safeguard global space assets. But the future of the night sky is expected to change forever.

However, there is a counterargument that astronomers would obtain better results by using telescopes in space to expand their reach rather than here on planet earth. It’s also important to remember how satellites have transformed all of our lives without us even realizing it. From enabling meteorologists to view weather patterns on a global scale to the GPS systems that help us to navigate across the land, sea, and the skies to the TV channels we enjoy. The big question is whether it has all been worth it?

Here on planet earth, during the holiday season and beyond, we can all play a part in helping to reduce our impact and fight against climate change. But, for the more aspirational who want to make a difference beyond the stars, maybe you should set your sights on solving even bigger problems and become an intergalactic trash collector. You might laugh now, but current predictions would suggest you could secure a job for life as well as an incredibly cool job title. May the Force be with us all.


prefix 2 years ago
It would actually be quite nice to have pretty rings, but I doubt this will happen. In our case the junk wouldn't all be going in one direction at the same relative longitude, they'd be going in every and any direction.

Instead, we'd simply see a lot of extra fast-moving "stars", and a lot more shooting stars from debris falling to Earth. So hardly any extra visual interest, unfortunately.
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