Will Large Satellite Constellations Affect Earth’s Magnetic Field?

A schematic representation of the different ionospheric sub-layers and how they evolve daily from day to night periods. (Credit: Carlos Molina)

Imagine taking a significant amount of metals and other materials out of the Earth’s crust and scattering it into the atmosphere from space. This is effectively what we have been doing ever since the beginning of the Space Age, with an increasing number of rocket stages, satellites and related objects ending their existence as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yet rather than vanish into nothing, the debris of this destruction remains partially in the atmosphere, where it forms pockets of material. As this material is often conductive, it will likely affect the Earth’s magnetic field, as argued by [Sierra Solter-Hunt] in a pre-publication article.

A summary by [Dr. Tony Phillips] references a 2023 NASA research article by [Daniel M. Murphy] et al. which describes the discovery that about 10% of the aerosol particles in the stratosphere are aluminium and other metals whose origin can be traced back to the ‘burn-up’ of the aforementioned space objects. This is a factor which can increase the Debye length of the ionosphere. What the exact effects of this may be is still largely unknown, but fact remains that we are launching massively more objects into space than even a decade ago, with the number of LEO objects consequently increasing.

Although the speculation by [Sierra] can be called ‘alarmist’, the research question of what’ll happen if over the coming years we’ll have daily Starlink and other satellites disintegrating in the atmosphere is a valid one. As this looks like it will coat the stratosphere and ionosphere in particular with metal aerosols at levels never seen before, it might be worth it to do the research up-front, rather than wait until we see something odd happening.

48 thoughts on “Will Large Satellite Constellations Affect Earth’s Magnetic Field?

  1. I wonder if any data could be extracted from records during Project West Ford. The mass may have been smaller but the re-entry rate was high, which may have produced a transient spike.

  2. I would love it if articles like this actually used numbers.

    “Yet rather than vanish into nothing, the debris of this destruction remains partially in the atmosphere, where it forms pockets of material. As this material is often conductive, it will likely affect the Earth’s magnetic field”

    By how much? By 0.00001% or by 10%? Huge difference.

    Also, numbers need context.

    “10% of the aerosol particles in the stratosphere are aluminium and other metals”

    What percentage of the stratosphere consists of aerosol particles, and what is the magnitude of their effect? Without this information, one has no reference to understand that number. It’s meaningless, other than to say that out of all the things we have put up there, spacecraft are a decent part of it. That doesn’t say whether it’s significant or not.


    What i call alarmist are articles that repeat claims like this, without any actual analysis. They appeal to the emotions of a reader, and yet leave them no real information to come to any meaningful conclusion.
    If you don’t want to be called alarmist, then hold your writing to a higher standard.

    1. These aren’t the kind of things that would be a walk in the park to gather and calculate.

      It’s make a reasonable research article that could be summarised on HaD but to ask Maya to do the research before the editorial is a bit much.

      1. No one is making any author make vague unfounded claims. (Well if there is, there’s a very different probpem).

        It seems to me that making more extreme claims is a way to grab the attention of a reader. It’s quite effective, it’s just not really intellectually honest. If an author isn’t going to put a lot of research into an article, then they should be careful not to write unfounded strong claims into that article.

        I don’t mind summary articles. I’ve just noticed that there’s a trend of summary articles drastically overstating new scientific research accross the news/media world. I enjoy this site because it *usually* tends to be less of a problem here.

    2. So read the linked paper for what numbers it contains then…
      Though in this case still sparse on detail in depth as the data hasn’t really been gathered to know anything much for sure. This is very much a ‘Um excuse me everyone have we thought about…’ with a little bit of ‘This is odd’ type paper that points out how rapidly we have changed our spaceflight habits and what it might mean. But as we have not yet really studied what all these constellations in LEO, the rapid launch cadence, the increase in metal particulates in the upper atmosphere will really do…

      1. These are fair points. A paper that is just noticing some interesting incomplete data is a valid paper. I just don’t see how it is accurate to turn that into the statement “will likely affect the Earth’s magnetic field” without mentioning that we do not know by how much, or even if it really will.

        If information isn’t known, one ought to say so, not imply that it’s known and just not stated. It’s really hard to tell nowadays if a statement like these is 1)proven by data 2)speculation or 3)embellishment by the author. So often nowadays, if it’s not clearly explained, it is 2 or 3. Good communication is the job of the writer (within reason). I don’t think “go read all the primary sources if you think the writing is bad” is really a good defense. If that’s all this site is, why not just have a url feed?

        1. For a paper like this one you would virtually have reproduce the whole thing in the article, as there isn’t much condensing or editing for accessibility of the layman that can be done. The paper itself only has a few interesting data backed facts and graphs and some speculation – so a though provoking, speculative article that lets you know if you may wish to read the paper and then actually links to the paper in question is exactly what I’d want out of HAD – Otherwise I may never have read this paper or considered the points it raises without being directed to it.

      2. Exactly. Someone near the start of the industrial revolution probably looked up at the factories belching smoke and wondered what this might do to the atmosphere long term. If they’d have managed to get people thinking and researching this earlier we may not have as big a global warming problem as we are currently worrying about. Steps could have started being taken much earlier to avoid it.

        1. You have to manage to catch the ear of the Monarch/Aristocrat that are running the show around there and scare the excrement out of them to the extent they can see beyond more power and profits in their lifetime… Sadly was never going to happen, even though there where many people over the last 200 odd years that did that thinking and research.

    3. This particular author consistently takes pre-press articles and overblown press release claims and regurgitates said outlandish claims here. Often in fields that they pretty clearly do not have significant experience in base solely on what I read and how the topic is addressed here. It is their process for writing.
      I’ve commented on it many times in the past and have made a concerted effort recently to stop being “like that” in comments section. It seems pretty unproductive. I will still comment though when they are in my areas of expertise and are flatly wrong, misleading and so on.

      1. This is analogous to discussion of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Do volcanoes and other natural processes crank them into the atmosphere? Yup! Did human-caused emissions disrupt the existing equilibrium? Yup! An Aerospace Corp report (William Ailor, “Large Constellation Disposal Hazards”) estimates 100 tons of artificial satellites drop out of orbit each year, jumping to perhaps 3200 tons/year in 2030, given the currently deploying and planned constellations. A portion of that reaches the ground, a portion vaporizes in the upper atmosphere, but to what ratio?

  3. “it might be worth it to do the research up-front, rather than wait until we see something odd happening”

    Alarmist anti-progress conspiracy nonsense.

    Now shut up and hold this screwdriver for me whilst I pop the other plutonium hemisphere on top.


    1. Well, before setting off the first A-Bomb, they did seriously research the chance of it setting fire to the atmosphere. Not everyone doing A-Bomb research was that risky luckily.

  4. Judging from the thousands of tons of iron ore that gets dug up every day, and the (literally) astronomical cost of getting a kilo of material into orbit, I’m going to make a bold claim that satellites don’t constitute a significant amount of anything from the Earth’s crust.

  5. This research isnt just alarmist, it’s wrong and massively bias; meteorites represent 48.5 tons of new stuff in our atmosphere everyday—3-7.5 of that stuff is aluminum it’s a pretty common metal in asteroids and meteorites. This “research” makes other scientists look bad, because it’s very clearly an inaccurate claim looking for supporting data and ignoring actual data.

  6. To be clear, the Debye Length is a measure of the shielding distance of electric fields, not magnetic (and it is not directly responsible for the drag that decays satellite orbits). The ionosphere doesn’t screen out the Earth’s large-scale (internal dynamo) magnetic field either, though it can carry electric currents. The metals could potentially enhance this conductivity, and the larger currents can generate their own small magnetic fields, but not in the way the title suggests

  7. Huh. Maybe look at some orders of magnitudes and consider some impossibilities. Between 10 million and 100 million kg of solar system debris enters the atmosphere in a typical year. This stuff has lots of iron and nickle and 5 to 10% aluminum. A million kg to 10 million kg a year seems like quite a bit. Is the new contribution from launcher second stages a significant increase?

  8. The near-vacuum of space is not conductive. A wire composed of a continuous length of solid metal is highly conductive. An aerosol of metal ions within a near-vacuum would be somewhere in between, but my gut is leaning towards it being indistinguishably close to the vacuum.

    1. Tubes (valves) aren’t conductive? Some tubes were purposely gassy for the task. Hypothetical charges on planets, moons, and comets from solar wind. Comet trail full of ions could be a lightning rod to the whole earth? Scary talks I heard on Art Bell years ago before we had starlings in space. It’s not just when it comes down but up makes even more smoke.

      1. Some rectifiers had mercury vapor. Some “trigger” tubes had neon or argon, etc. But amplifier tubes had the best vacuum possible so thermally emitted electrons could fly through one or more grids to an electrode.

  9. “Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the twentieth century”

    Is there anything useful here to be applied to the study of exo-planets?

  10. On the positive side, the shadows cast by the satellites will counteract global warming. A big question is why are we not working on harvesting the industrial raw materials existing in aerosol form in our atmosphere.

  11. Didn’t see any connection between aluminum particles in the atmosphere and the effect on the earths magnetic field. Aluminum is not a magnetic material. Lots of adjectives, but not even a simple analysis using readily available data (mass of existing starlink satellites in orbit / estimated volume of leo atmosphere) relative to existing data on particulate densities in urban’s cities.

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