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Nature Astronomy


The shell bound by the Karman line at a height of ~80–100 km above the Earth’s surface and geosynchronous orbit at ~36,000 km is defined as the orbital space surrounding the Earth. It is within this region, and especially in low Earth orbit, where environmental issues are becoming urgent because of the rapid growth of the anthropogenic space object population, including satellite ‘mega-constellations’. In this Perspective, we summarize the case for considering the orbital space around the Earth as an additional ecosystem, subject to the same care and concerns, and the same broad regulations as the oceans and the atmosphere, for example. We rely on the orbital space environment by looking through it, as well as by working within it. Hence, we should consider damage to professional astronomy, public stargazing, and the cultural importance of the sky, as well as the sustainability of commercial, civic, and military activity in space. Damage to the orbital space environment has problematic features in common with other types of environmental issue. First, the observed and predicted damage is incremental and complex, with many contributors. Second, whether or not space is formally and legally seen as a global commons, the growing commercial exploitation of what may seem to be a ‘free’ resource is in fact externalizing the true costs.





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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Licensed to Smith College and distributed CC-BY under the Smith College Faculty Open Access Policy.


Peer reviewed accepted manuscript.



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