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Edinburgh Law School academics collaborate on innovative cross-disciplinary study into the environmental impact of deorbiting satellites

Mon 3 June 2024

Satellite over Earth

The University of Southampton is leading the first-ever cross-disciplinary research project that will study the environmental impact of satellites that burn up as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The global launch industry is on track to place as many as 50,000 new satellites into orbit by 2030 but we have yet to understand the long-term implications for our climate and planet. The University of Edinburgh is one of the collaborators in this £300,000 project funded by the UK Space Agency. 

From the University, Edinburgh Law School’s Dr Rachael Craufurd Smith and Dr Michael Hennessy Picard are part of the research team. Their legal expertise is part of the efforts that the project is taking to recognise the complex relationship between technology, politics, and societal concerns that exists in space exploration. 

About participating in this study, Dr Picard said: “Edinburgh Law School is proud to be part of this project examining the environmental impacts of satellite combustion in the atmosphere. We are now in a stronger position to research the overlapping spheres of normativity affected by space congestion. The accumulation of space waste has spillover effects on the atmosphere, and this project will follow waste materialities and their movement as they transcend jurisdictional spheres. The team assembled here will examine the complex interactions of science, industry and government in regulating the displacement of waste from one area beyond national jurisdiction (space) to another (the atmosphere).”

Dr Craufurd Smith added: "We are now entering a 'new space' era spearheaded by commercial interests. This offers enormous benefits - facilitating communications, supporting agriculture and health, and providing information about our world and its climate - but we need to ensure that we minimise any potential negative impacts of this exponential growth. This exciting project should help us understand how the space industries of today can develop so that they enhance, rather than degrade, the lives of generations in the future."

Read the University of Southampton’s article on the study

Dr Rachael Craufurd Smith - Profile 

Dr Michael Hennessy Picard - Profile