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Space debris expert: Orbits will be lost—and people will die—later this decade

“Flexing geopolitical muscles in space to harm others has already happened.”

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Enlarge / Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin. (credit: MacArthur Foundation)

Up until about a decade ago, an average of 80 to 100 satellites per year were launched into varying orbits. Some reentered Earth’s atmosphere quickly, while others will remain in orbit for decades.

This now seems quaint. In the last five years, driven largely by the rise of communications networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink and a proliferation of small satellites, the number of objects launched into space has increased dramatically.

In 2017, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the annual number exceeded 300. By 2020, the annual number of objects launched exceeded 1,000 for the first time. This year, the total has already surpassed 2,000. With more broadband-from-space networks like Amazon’s Project Kuiper on the way, further growth can be expected.

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