Plasma Physicist Warns That Elon Musk's Disposable Satellites May Be Damaging the Earth's Magnetic Field

Left Field

Dead satellites and other debris are constantly burning up as they fall out of Earth's orbit.

Conventional wisdom is destroying all that space junk is good, because it keeps orbit less cluttered. But it may have harmful effects on our planet's magnetic field, as plasma physicist and former Air Force research scientist Sierra Solter — the author of a contentious and yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper — argues in a new essay for The Guardian.

Ventures like Elon Musk's SpaceX are launching thousands of satellites into orbit, and tens of thousands more are soon to follow as interest in the private space industry and space tourism continues to grow.

But having retired satellites burn up in the Earth's atmosphere just might have disastrous effects on our planet, disturbing the plasma that forms a protective shell around it, shielding humanity from harmful radiation.

"After studying the problem for over a year, I have no doubt that the sheer vastness of this pollution is going to disrupt our delicate plasma environment in one way or another," Solter wrote, arguing that big money in "commercial space ventures" could stop us from "discussing this potential crisis."

Strip Show

Companies like SpaceX have long argued that satellites burning up during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere is a harmless process. Solter, however, believes this practice releases huge amounts of metallic ash, more than "an Eiffel Tower's worth" a year, directly into the ionosphere.

This ash, especially particulates of aluminum, could wreak havoc on — or even punch new holes into — the atmosphere's ozone layer, potentially leaving humanity exposed back on the ground.

"If all of these conductive materials accumulate into a huge layer of trash, it could trap or deflect all or parts of our magnetic field," Solter argued in the opinion piece. "The Earth is a ball magnet that we’re surrounding with fast-moving metal trash."

"People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos repeatedly state that space is the key to human longevity," Solter wrote. "But what if it is the opposite? What if the space industry is the means to our pale blue dot’s demise?"

"Until this pollution is studied further, we should all reconsider satellite internet," she concluded.

More on the magnetosphere: Paper Claims Dying SpaceX Satellites Could Weaken Earth's Magnetic Field