The increasing risk for satellites in space

When humans first began exploring space it was a vast open plain. Now, the atmosphere around the earth is becoming saturated with man-made technologies, from active satellites to rocket parts and other space junk. In the context of the expanse of space, this may not seem like an imminent problem, but it is causing much more tangible consequences for life on earth than it may seem.

In this article we’ll discuss the increasing risk surrounding active satellites in space and how the realisation of these risks can affect us on earth.

What is space risk?

Space risk represents the potential risks posed to satellites and their function. The impacts of these risks however expand beyond the satellites themselves, to the users and applications of satellites on the ground. Therefore, space risk can also mean business risk, mission risk, and human risk depending on the purpose of the satellite in question.

Types of risks to satellites

The main threats to satellites services are physical damage causing a complete loss or degradation of service, such as a reduction in capability, accuracy or bandwidth. This kind of damage could be caused by a number of events. While degraded service could be remedied by reorienting or moving a satellite, physical damage is much more difficult to fix and could be permanent. These threats are present from both natural phenomena and man-made action.

Here are the primary situations and actions that pose a potential risk to satellites:

  • Space weather: Space weather could mean meteorites, solar wind, and other environmental factors – all of which could influence the orientation of a satellite or even physically impact an asset.
  • Conjunctions: Space junk is the human debris and objects that remain in space but no longer serve a purpose. Any of these items could interfere with active satellites, by coming too close (conjunction) or hitting these assets. A conjunction can also be two operational satellites coming too close to one another.
  • Anti-satellite systems: Human entities can target satellites to disrupt the service of a satellite. This could be done using kinetic objects, like launching something physical, or non-kinetic objects, such as a laser or cyber attack on the network.

Why satellite risk is increasing

According to ESA, there were roughly 3,700 satellites orbiting earth in January 2021 and yet the number of satellites launched since the beginning of the space age is around 10,600. So why such a disparity between these numbers? This ‘missing’ 6,000 represents defunct satellites, discarded parts of rockets and the tiny remanence of historic collisions between objects in orbit.

This balance will only become more contrasting as the number of satellites in space rapidly increases. More than ever, satellites are both affordable and accessible, being used not only by military or governmental groups, but commercial entities as well. As this trend increases in speed, it’s essential to start considering how the rising volume of space assets may be impacting the risks associated with managing them and how it affects people on the ground.

Here are the 3 main reasons increasing volumes of satellites is associated with increasing risk:

1. Greater use of space assets

More services, industries, and applications use satellites every day to function. This means the fallout of a disruption or degradation to satellite services with technologies on the ground will be very widespread.

The risks of satellites incidents are also rapidly expanding beyond the first-order, physical consequences to the satellite itself. A large number of services or people will be reliant on a single satellite and so the downstream effects of degradation to its services could be vast – spanning industries and countries.

2. Increased competition

The increasing number of objects in space, represented by both active and defunct assets, directly corresponds to increased risk. With every new satellite launched or space debris left behind, there is more risk these objects will collide or interfere with one another’s orbit.

3. Increased consequences

There are a multitude of applications that rely on satellite services which, if disrupted, could have significant consequences for people’s health and safety. Satellites used for military operations, critical national infrastructure or autonomous systems for example will have a much greater impact on ground operations than some other assets. Any disruption could potentially mean the difference between life and death and so the risks of not protecting these assets are severe.

Key challenges when understanding satellite risk

Understanding the direct impact to a satellite is straightforward, but analysing the downstream effects is much more complex. A key challenge satellite operators and organisations face is visualising the connections between their space assets and their ground activities. And without the ability to do this, calculating the knock-on effects, from direct to third-order impacts, of any given satellite incident on their use case is near impossible.

Read more about the importance of modelling space risk

The future technological landscape of space

Our reliance on space satellites is only going to grow. Smart tech like IoT and automation is being integrated into more applications. 5G is spreading across cities and ubiquitous signal is nearing realisation. Soon our entire world will be connected, and people’s health, behaviour, and functioning will become more tied to the status of satellites.

But with greater reliance and greater saturation comes more risk.

The questions stakeholders need to start asking are; how do we define and track this evolving risk? How can organisations be empowered to understand the downstream risk to their activities? And once the risk is understood; how can we manage and react to this risk?

Answering these questions will be imperative. For example, if the satellite service an autonomous vehicle is using gets interrupted, does it stop, pull over, or continue on? This kind of event needs to be considered, and there needs to be a pre-programmed response put in place to ensure people’s safety.

Satellites also continue to become more accessible. More assets are launched every year, from private and government organisations, adding new dimensions to an already complex environment. As the landscape of space fills up in this way, and risk correspondingly rises, regulations will need to start evolving to account for the space technology era.

SpaceAware

Riskaware’s SpaceAware incident modelling platform aims to add clarity to the complex relationships between satellites in space and applications on the ground.

Get in touch to learn more about our novel SpaceAware solution.

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