For years, climate advocates have looked to the stars and sky for answers and inspiration for ways to combat climate change. Satellites that orbit around the earth give us everything from data about global temperature to the ability to share data and information about climate change. Even the World Economic Forum has touted the many ways in which space technology could help solve climate change.
Yet, as it turns out, there could be some drawbacks to all that data and technology. Those same advanced satellites we use for tracking data, sending an email, or checking the latest temperature in Poughkeepsie could be contributing to climate change.
According to a new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), satellites are leaving tiny bits of rare earth materials in the atmosphere when they burn up upon reentry into the earth's atmosphere. The researchers were astounded to find elements like niobium, hafnium, aluminum, copper and lithium in the upper atmosphere, especially because they weren't looking for them.
Niobium, hafnium, and lithium are rare earth metals used to make tech components like batteries and heat-resistant, high-performance alloys, which are used on satellites and rockets. Those metals are creating a cause for concern about the future of climate change because they affect the atmosphere in a number of potentially detrimental ways.
The space race has been increasingly privatized, with corporations like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper promising to launch nearly 10,000 satellites into orbit within the next few years. According to the European Space Agency’s latest Space Debris Report, more satellites were launched in 2022 than any year before.
Space X has launched around 2,000 Starlink internet satellites, completing its first orbital shell in May 2022. Since then, regular launches have taken place, and according to a July story (and stunning animation of the Starlink shells) in The New York Times, there are more than 4500 satellites in orbit now.
In early October, Project Kuiper, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, launched its first internet satellite. Bezos has said that he plans to launch more than 3,200 satellites over the next few years with the goal of providing broadband internet service to US customers in 2024. There are currently more than 10,300 satellites orbiting the earth. Of those, more than 80% are active, and 53% are Starlink satellites.
All of this points to a fact that should go without saying: As the world becomes even more reliant on connectivity, the demand for more communications satellites will only increase. Those satellites, eventually, will have to go out of service and crash back to earth. That raises some concern for the researchers behind the PNAS study.
They note, "The space industry has entered an era of rapid growth. With tens of thousands of small satellites planned for low earth orbit, that increased mass will be divided into many more reentry events. Given that 10% of stratospheric particles now contain enhanced aluminum, with many more reentry events, it is likely that in the next few decades, the percentage of stratospheric sulfuric acid particles that contain aluminum and other metals from satellite reentry will be comparable to the roughly 50% that now contain meteoric metals."
The authors say that around 10% of the aerosol particles in the stratosphere contain bits of burnt-up satellite. And that while it's still hard to say what impacts these aerosols might have on the ground, the authors point out that adding thousands of planned satellites to the ones already airborne could alter the stratospheric aerosol layer in significant ways.
For one, the prevalence of these materials in the stratosphere could impact how ice forms in the atmosphere.
According to the report: "Novel ice nuclei can have a large effect even at low concentrations because polar stratospheric clouds nucleate on a small fraction of the particles. Analogues of meteoric inclusions in sulfuric acid have been shown to be ice nuclei. Metal cations can also induce efflorescence in aerosol particles. The results in this paper prompted us to reanalyze some of our own older mass spectra. We have identified spacecraft reentry particles in ice residuals from high-altitude cirrus sampled in 2002, although not at a notably different frequency than meteoric elements."
They also note that an increase in the tiny bits of burnt-up space junk could cause a "different light scattering and radiative forcing." However, they don't elaborate on what implications that might have for climate change and global warming.
One possibility that they do note, however, is that “if 10% of the copper vaporized in a future reentry scenario were to be deposited on Antarctica, it could possibly double the concentration of copper in Antarctic snow as roughly estimated from total snowfall and copper in recent snow.”
This isn't the first time researchers have raised concerns about space junk. In 2021, The New York Times reported on a research paper presented at the European Conference on Space Debris that noted that an increasing amount of space junk could result in changes to the atmosphere caused by carbon dioxide emissions and potentially increase the amount of debris that stays in orbit.
In addition to the climate impact of all that space junk cluttering up the atmosphere, there's the impact that the increasing number of satellites has on astronomy. Astronomers have been sounding the alarm about low-earth orbit satellites, which have been making dark skies brighter (satellites reflect light back to earth) and threatening ground-based astronomy, as this story notes.
While we are clearly insatiable when it comes to data consumption and connectivity, and the resulting space race is only accelerating, a lot more research will need to be done to understand the direct effects of space junk on climate change.
Check out some of the latest featured jobs below. If you don't see anything that speaks to you, you can always go to Climatebase to explore thousands of other opportunities.
“BEF brings together partners across all sectors of society to co-create innovative solutions that address climate challenges primarily by restoring freshwater ecosystems and by catalyzing a renewable energy future for all. BEF is an entrepreneurial nonprofit working on environmental solutions at the intersection of energy, decarbonization and water. Partnerships are key to our success. We build long-term relationships with businesses , ...”
“Specifx Data, Inc. is B2B, SaaS business specializing in asset-level intelligence for the HVAC industry. We act as a system-of-record for the industry with proprietary technology that delivers visibility, context, and insights into HVAC asset portfolios. Our mission is to transform the HVAC data acquisition and solutioning experience for owners, occupiers, investors, and service providers – reducing the effort to acquire ...”
“NineDot's name derives from the classic mathematical puzzle for sparking out-of-the-box solutions. As a leading community-scale, clean energy developer with a growing portfolio of projects across a range of technologies, NineDot Energy is creating innovative energy solutions that support a more resilient electric grid, deliver economic savings and reduce carbon emissions. We plan to develop, build and operate more than ...”
“Wildlife Works' mission is to create market-based solutions for wildlife and ecosystem conservation that drives direct financing and self governance for local communities. Our community-centered wildlife conservation projects implement market-based initiatives to protect the planet’s threatened wilderness and endangered wildlife. The company was founded on the premise that if we want wildlife in our world, we have to make it work ...”
“RER Solutions, Inc. is a minority, woman-owned business. Leading platform delivering insight-driven advisory and responsive support services to meet clients' needs. We have been serving federal clients for 25+ years. ...”
“Climate Robotics is a venture-backed startup based in Houston, TX. We are building the next generation of agricultural machinery to produce biochar, a powerful soil amendment that improves soil health and sequesters atmospheric carbon. ...”
“Lydian is a technology development company focused on producing the cheapest carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals on the planet. Our process replaces oil and gas refining with fully electrified, modular, and highly efficient reactor systems that enable the upgrading of captured CO2 into a range of carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals. Our initial focus is on the production of the cheapest and ...”
“CarbonCure Technologies is an award-winning clean technology company leading a global mission to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete – the world’s most used building material. Our vision is to drive an annual reduction of 500 megatonnes of carbon dioxide(CO2) emissions; the equivalent of removing 100 million cars from the road. Our technology has been installed in over 400 concreteplants ...”
“Your deposits help shape the world in which we live. What type of world do you wish to create? Atmos uses 100% of deposits to finance climate-positive infrastructure like clean energy, electrification, and regenerative agriculture. ...”
“The Low Impact Hydropower Institute (LIHI) is a national non-profit organization that certifies eligible hydropower facilities that prioritize environmental, recreational, historical, and cultural resource protection. We believe that hydropower is part of addressing climate change and that it can be built and operated in a manner that enables healthy ecosystems which are essential to biodiversity preservation and planetary health. As ...”
“Pyka’s goal is to provide society with a new form of fast, environmentally friendly, and accessible transportation enabled by autonomous electric aviation. To get there, we’re taking a different approach than most. We're applying our technologies to every industry where electric aircraft can be useful, starting with the highest value and most dangerous jobs. In doing so, we're building useful, game-changing ...”
“Ascend Analytics is an innovative software and consulting company at the forefront of the renewable energy transition. Our software solutions provide decision analytics for power traders, risk analysts, resource managers, developers and financiers. Ascend provides a collaborative work culture involving frequent interaction with clients, where individual initiative and creativity are highly valued. Interactions with senior management happen daily, and hard ...”
“We are an impact-driven, remote-first, AgTech startup headquartered in Germany and Brazil with the goal to reverse climate change and make tropical agriculture more regenerative, low-carbon and sustainable. We are working with Enhanced Rock Weathering in tropical agriculture, currently with focus on Brazil. We do that to create a liveable planet for future generations and, in specific, to regenerate soils ...”
“Recoolit empowers sustainable cooling around the world. Air conditioning is critical for climate resilience: as the world gets hotter, AC adoption is projected to 5x in emerging markets by 2050. However this comes with a massive environmental impact as the refrigerant chemicals in air conditioning cause 6% of all climate change. We are creating a software platform and logistics network that supports ...”
“Capture6 develops and commercializes highly-scalable approaches to permanently removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that is easy to verify and audit. Because time is of the essence with earth’s climate in the balance, we pioneered an approach that can be massively deployed today through repurposing a set of commercialized technologies. As a registered public benefit corporation, the ...”
“Cleartrace provides the actionable data companies need to proactively decarbonize their operations. By illuminating previously unseen energy data, companies can see and manage the upstream production and downstream consumption of their energy, every hour of the day. Global sustainability leaders including JPMorgan, Nextera and Brookfield trust Cleartrace to deliver 100% traceable and verifiable energy and carbon records as proof of ...”
That's it for this week! Remember, you can always view thousands of more jobs on Climatebase.org.
👋 Get discovered. Create a profile to have employers hire you.
🚀 Accelerate your climate career. Apply to join the Climatebase Fellowship.
🌱 Hiring? Post your jobs to reach over 250k monthly users users and over 100,000 newsletter readers.
❤️️ Share a link to this week's edition.