Reentering satellites can cause significant ozone depletion, all eyes on Musk

Short-lived satellites weaken the ozone layer, likely resulting in higher UV radiation on Earth.

We depend on our smartphones for everything – from getting to a new concert venue and finding gluten-free recipes to obsessing about GPS connectivity during a trail run.

For that seamless experience, we rely on satellites. While we benefit from massive constellations now, they might come back to bite us in the future.

On Tuesday, a Falcon 9 rocket launched another batch of Starlink satellites into space. Of 20 spacecraft units deployed from California, 13 have ‘Direct to Cell’ capabilities, allowing devices to communicate with the satellites through tree cover and indoors.

According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, the Starlink constellation already consists of over 6,000 Starlink satellites. In total, there are just over 10,000 satellites in orbit, making Elon Musk’s SpaceX the biggest player.

Falcon 9 rocket launch in California
Falcon 9 rocket launch. Kevin Carter/GettyImages.

No wonder SpaceX launches attract the most public attention, and quite often not the kind it might enjoy, I suppose.

Research by José P. Ferreira, Ziyu Huang, Ken-ichi Nomura, and Joseph Wang published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and first spotted by the Independent alleges that in the long term, reentering satellites can cause significant ozone depletion.

Essentially, it would mean increased levels of UV radiation on Earth. Exposure to too much radiation could weaken our immune system, cause cancer, and lead to premature aging. For our planet, this could mean a reduction in food supply. Here’s a scientific study of ozone depletion if you want to scare yourself some more.

There is concern that ozone depletion may lead to a loss of plant species and reduce global food supply.

They are sounding the alarm bells about the fact that the number of satellites orbiting the Earth will only increase in the foreseeable future. When they are disposed into the atmosphere at the end of service life, they generate aluminum oxides, accelerating ozone depletion.

Researchers project that in the future, the byproducts generated by reentering satellites will amount to over 360 metric tons per year - 640% above natural levels.

“As aluminum oxide nanoparticles may remain in the atmosphere for decades, they can cause significant ozone depletion,” they said.

Four tons of satellites will be launched daily over the next decade, Euroconsult, a company with expertise in satellite industry market intelligence, forecasts. Satellites like Starlink reportedly last for approximately five years. At the end of service, as mentioned, they reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

“Due to their small size, the byproducts of spacecraft reentry can endure in the atmosphere and remain unnoticed until ozone concentration levels start decreasing. As reentry rates increase, it is crucial to further explore the concerns highlighted in this study,” the research highlighted.