“Multiple tragedies of the commons” — satellite mega-constellations and the limits of Earth’s atmosphere

…there is little recognition that Earth’s orbit is a finite resource, the space and Earth environments are connected, and the actions of one actor can affect everyone. Until that changes, we risk multiple tragedies of the commons in space.

From Scientific Reports
Published 20 May 2021

Boley, A.C., Byers, M. Satellite mega-constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on EarthSci Rep 11, 10642 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89909-7


The rapid development of mega-constellations risks multiple tragedies of the commons, including tragedies to ground-based astronomy, Earth orbit, and Earth’s upper atmosphere. Moreover, the connections between the Earth and space environments are inadequately taken into account by the adoption of a consumer electronic model applied to space assets. For example, we point out that satellite re-entries from the Starlink mega-constellation alone could deposit more aluminum into Earth’s upper atmosphere than what is done through meteoroids; they could thus become the dominant source of high-altitude alumina. Using simple models, we also show that untracked debris will lead to potentially dangerous on-orbit collisions on a regular basis due to the large number of satellites within mega-constellation orbital shells. The total cross-section of satellites in these constellations also greatly increases the risk of impacts due to meteoroids. De facto orbit occupation by single actors, inadequate regulatory frameworks, and the possibility of free-riding exacerbate these risks. International cooperation is urgently needed, along with a regulatory system that takes into account the effects of tens of thousands of satellites.

…Regardless of the law-making forum, mega-constellations require a shift in perspectives and policies: from looking at single satellites, to evaluating systems of thousands of satellites, and doing so within an understanding of the limitations of Earth’s environment, including its orbits.

Thousands of satellites and 1500 rocket bodies provide considerable mass in LEO, which can break into debris upon collisions, explosions, or degradation in the harsh space environment. Fragmentations increase the cross-section of orbiting material, and with it, the collision probability per time. Eventually, collisions could dominate on-orbit evolution, a situation called the Kessler Syndrome3. There are already over 12,000 trackable debris pieces in LEO, with these being typically 10 cm in diameter or larger. Including sizes down to 1 cm, there are about a million inferred debris pieces, all of which threaten satellites, spacecraft and astronauts due to their orbits crisscrossing at high relative speeds. Simulations of the long-term evolution of debris suggest that LEO is already in the protracted initial stages of the Kessler Syndrome, but that this could be managed through active debris removal4. The addition of satellite mega-constellations and the general proliferation of low-cost satellites in LEO stresses the environment further5,6,7,8.

…The first Starlink satellites contained some components that survive re-entry, with the highest human casualty risk for a single satellite calculated to be 1:17,40022, below NASA’s recommended 1:10,000 threshold. However, the initial approval process did not account for the cumulative casualty risk, and if all the then-planned 12,000 satellites had contained the same components, a continuous 5-year replacement cycle would have seen a 45% probability of one or more casualties per cycle. When the subsequent FCC petition process identified the problem, SpaceX reportedly replaced some materials with a view to having all of the satellite components now demise in the atmosphere23. Other companies, based in other countries, might not follow this best practice or be required to do so.

The demise of satellite components during re-entry introduces a different problem, since none of that material actually disappears. Starlink satellites have a dry mass of about 260 kg; 12,000 satellites will total 3100 tonnes. A 5-year cycle would see on average almost 2 tonnes re-entering Earth’s atmosphere daily. While small compared to the 54 daily tonnes of meteoroid mass24, the satellites are mostly aluminum; most meteoroids, in contrast, contain less than 1% Al by mass25. Thus, depending on the atmospheric residence time of material from re-entered satellites, each mega-constellation will produce fine particulates that could greatly exceed natural forms of high-altitude atmospheric aluminum deposition, particularly if the full numbers of envisaged satellites are launched. Anthropogenic deposition of aluminum in the atmosphere has long been proposed in the context of geoengineering as a way to alter Earth’s albedo26. These proposals have been scientifically controversial and controlled experiments encountered substantial opposition27. Mega-constellations will begin this process as an uncontrolled experiment28.

Rocket launches themselves affect the atmosphere. While cumulative CO2 emissions are small compared to other sources, CO2 is not the relevant metric. Black carbon produced by kerosene-fueled rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and alumina particles produced by solid-fueled rockets lead to instantaneous radiative forcing. Modelling of the cumulative effect of emissions from 1000 annual launches of hydrocarbon-fuelled rockets found that, after one decade, the black carbon would result in radiative forcing comparable to that resulting from sub-sonic aviation29. Although 1000 launches annually is 10 times the current rate, the construction and renewal of multiple mega-constellations will require dramatic increases in launches. Current launches likely cause non-negligible radiative forcing already30.

Rockets fueled with liquid hydrogen do not produce black carbon but require larger tanks and therefore larger rockets, with solid-fueled boosters often being used to increase payload capacity. SpaceX’s new Starship, which the company plans to use to launch 400 Starlink satellites at a time, will be fueled by methane, the combustion of which produces soot that may, like black carbon, contribute to radiative forcing. All liquid fuels will affect mesospheric cloud formation31, with potential climate consequences. Rockets even threaten the ozone layer by depositing radicals directly into the stratosphere29, with solid-fueled rockets causing the most damage because of the hydrogen chloride and alumina they contain29.

…there is little recognition that Earth’s orbit is a finite resource, the space and Earth environments are connected, and the actions of one actor can affect everyone. Until that changes, we risk multiple tragedies of the commons in space.


Boley, A.C., Byers, M. Satellite mega-constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on Earth. Sci Rep 11, 10642 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89909-7

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