What happens on Earth when satellites in space breakdown?

Satellites in space can experience disruption and degradation for a number of reasons. From other objects in orbit and natural space weather phenomenon, to electrical faults. These in orbit events can quickly translate into degraded services in earthly applications. Users on the ground are likely to see tangible impacts, the severity of which will vary depending on the use case involved.

In this article we explore several core sectors that rely on satellite service and what a disrupted satellite service would mean for users on the ground.

Defence

Due to the nature of the sector, there is a wide range of infrastructure within defence that relies on satellite services. With groups traversing land, air and sea, often in remote locations or with limited access to traditional technologies, satellites have become a vital element of defence operations.

Communications

Use cases

From soldiers in the field to ships at sea, it’s important that lines of communication remain open and secure. Satellites traditionally provide this access and security, receiving or communicating through encrypted lines.

In many cases, operating bases, vessels and individuals are also reliant on satellite communications for all kinds of networked access. Traditional means simply don’t provide the services needed when in remote locations or communicating between vast ranges.

Impacts of degradation

Disruption to communication service can have significant impacts. A degraded service could mean any individual or vessel on the ground would lose contact with their strategic base of operations or allied forces. This could have serious consequences for people in the field – especially if they are involved in an active mission and have no way of gaining new information, instructions or providing mission updates.

For example, maintaining communication during multi-domain missions is vital. When aircraft, such as fast jets, are travelling from ships or airbases to support land operations, they require consistent and reliable contact to carry out their responsibilities and gain much needed support. A disruption to satellites in space however could cause communication to drop or be delayed.

In the event of degraded communication service, users may switch to analogue alternatives. These options however come with the risk of being less secure and providing much reduced range. In most scenarios, this range likely wouldn’t be adequate for communication between operating bases and on-location missions.

Positioning

Use cases

Positioning signals from satellites supports navigation systems such as GNSS or GPS. Navigation is fundamental a variety of defensive use cases, including targeting systems, as well as aircraft and vessel navigation and positioning.

Impacts of degradation

If these satellites are disrupted, vessels could be left blind. They could be without proper guidance while out in the field, without intelligence about their location, or unable to locate other vessels. These signals can also be easily ‘spoofed’. Adversaries could send out ground signals to mask, mimic, or override a GNSS signal so it can’t be received.

Some systems also use the timing signals from these kinds of satellites to synchronise across time zones or locations. Without these signals, remote groups would be unable to coordinate their activities which could cause significant disruption to mission progress.

Imagery intelligence

Use cases

Earth observation satellites provide ground intelligence and situational awareness gained from imagery. This helps users understand the context of their operations, monitoring adversaries or significant locations, and perform damage assessments in mission locations.

Similarly, meteorology satellites which provide information about the weather are often used to assess conflict situations.

Impacts of degradation

Disruption to these satellites could cut off access to vital mission and situational intelligence which is used to plan strategic missions. Without this intelligence, users are blind to events, geographies, and activities over the horizon. For example, if entering territory for combat or rescue, they would have no way to assess the situation before deploying resources.

This could cause life-threatening delays to missions while intelligence is gathered in another way or mean missions have to be abandoned. Alternatively, users may continue action but with less intelligence than hoped for. These impacts extend beyond the front line to strategic operators who could be used satellite imagery to monitoring country-wide military activity to help inform defensive actions.

Read more about the increase of satellite risk

Logistics and Infrastructure

Logistics, operations, and critical national infrastructure are another sector where satellite disruption could have significant and costly impacts. From utilities to transport to import-export, these are institutions which people rely on running smoothly every day.

Communications

Use cases

Remote infrastructure could use satellite technology to gain achieve communications in areas with little infrastructure or where they need greater range than traditional means provides. This includes offshore infrastructure, logistics vessels, and large mining sites amongst others.

Impacts of degradation

These kinds of infrastructure organisations would be made up of large networks of operations, sites, and activity, often spanning across or between countries. Disruption to communication satellites used by these industries would have a widespread impact.

Coordinating activity would be extremely difficult and the ripple effect of any delays or the inability to pass on information through communication signals could permeate through operations, business performance, supply and delivery, and potentially take a long time to rectify.

Positioning

Use cases

Any logistics industry that relies on transport would use positioning signals on a daily basis for navigation. Timing signals are also fundamental for many industries in these sectors, allowing organisations and processes to be synchronised, including online networks, banking transactions and energy networks.

Impacts of degradation

If satellites providing timing signals went offline or were providing a degraded service, many industries won’t be able to provide their business-as-usual service. Coordination of multi-site operations and navigation of transport, aircraft, and ships will all be impacted. Similarly, with communication issues, these impacts could be global.

Take the Suez Canal incident as an example. Although this disruption wasn’t due to satellite services, it demonstrates how modern infrastructure and logistics can be so vastly disrupted, with a seemingly isolated event causing many impacts. The stranded Ever Given ultimately caused 369 ships to experience significant delays, disrupting 12% of global trade and costing up to $15m in revenue from the canal’s traffic.

Similarly, a disruption in logistics or infrastructure due to satellite degradation will permeate downstream, impacting economies, populations, national affairs, food and health.

Imagery

Use cases

Satellite imagery can be used to monitor infrastructure developments such as buildings, dams, bridges and others. It helps organisations see progress, movement and change over time. Infrastructure organisations also benefit from meteorology satellites for weather forecasting and climate monitoring.

Impacts of degradation

In this scenario, degraded satellite service likely wouldn’t be immediately critical. Primarily it may cause delays in intelligence gathering and disrupted monitoring. Climate monitoring could potentially have greater impacts if any significant events or changes were to occur during the time service was depleted.

Finance

Positioning

Use cases

High-speed trading platforms and stock markets across the globe rely on timing signals to synchronise trades. Similarly, the automation of banking transactions and ATM or card activity utilise timing signals from positioning satellites to operate properly.

Impacts of degradation

Disruption to timing signals for finance sectors would prevent stock marketers from synchronising trades, causing delays and potentially even financial loss in some cases.

Automation would also experience interference. This would cause several inconveniences for individuals; including being unable to use bank cards in different bank ATMs or having delayed access to money.

The need for satellite risk modelling

Beyond specific industries, the ownership and control of satellites can sway international concerns. From geopolitical influence to trade and supply chains, seemingly minimal disruption to satellites can have far-reaching and impactful significance.

This highlights just how reliant we are on satellites, but also pinpoints a major unexplored issue in that most organisations don’t know how satellite behaviour impacts their day-to-day. And they certainly aren’t prepared for a potential degraded satellite service. If a natural phenomenon event, a rogue state, or simply on accident were to occur to disrupt a critical satellite, countries and industries across the world could feel the effects.

RELATED: The importance of modelling space risk

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