The space race and a rising need to consider satellite risk

“I think almost all of us now recognise Space as an operational domain in its own right. It underpins almost every aspect of life in the information Age, from food on our shelves to fuel in our tanks to the critical enabling of operations across all domains. That means we must put space at the forefront of future thinking in our Armed Forces and across our government’s policy making.” Air Chief Marshal, Sir Mike Wigston. 14th July 2021

Modern society is underpinned by satellite technology. From television to communication to space travel, people are using satellites every day.

Many newer innovations are entirely based on the power of satellites. Autonomous cars couldn’t navigate without them, Smart Cities would crumble, and instant credit payments wouldn’t be possible.

Once a novel capability, satellites are increasingly embedded into our way of life with exponentially more to be added every year. This makes protecting satellites extremely valuable.

Concerns around the safety of satellite-dependent societies are rising amongst many citizens and scientists. This growing reliance comes with inherently growing risks. What happens if satellites break down? What does disruption in space mean for us on the ground? These are questions that are starting to be considered in greater depth, but still there are few ways to fully answer them.

In this article we take a dive into the many ways satellites are connected to life on earth and how these impacts can permeate throughout different sectors, from Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) to defence. We also introduce our unique solution to understanding satellite risk.

The saturation of space

At one point in time, satellites were few and far between. Russia was the first to launch this innovative technology and were closely followed by the US. Starting in the 1950s, this move initiated a global race to occupy space which has been accelerated by the 21st century’s rise of technology innovation.

Key statistics about satellites:

ESA and Nasa 2021 figures

  • Total satellites launched into space – About 12020
  • Total functioning satellites in orbit – About 4500
  • Total debris objects monitored – About 29150
  • Total debris objects in orbit – Over 128 million
  • Total mass of space objects orbiting Earth – More than 9500 tonnes
  • Space debris speeds – Over 15,000 mph
  • Debris avoidance manoeuvres performed by the ISS – 29 since 1999

Esri has created an extensive and interactive map where you can explore all the satellites, debris, and other objects orbiting the Earth. This condensed collection of data points clearly shows that our atmosphere is quickly filling up, with no signs of slowing.

Why satellites are so numerous

Satellites are the backbone of many services, technologies, and operations. More and more we are developing solutions that rely on satellite connections. From telephone communication to IoT and Earth Observation, there are countless old, new and future applications for satellite technology.

This means that space is rapidly filling up.

Not only are there estimated to be 990 satellites launched each year until 2028, but there are thousands of satellites already in space. And on top of this, there is a countless number of debris objects that aren’t being retrieved.

This is a starkly one-sided trend that shows our use of atmospheric real-estate is rapidly becoming unsustainable.

What are satellites used for?

So, what exactly are we using all these satellites for? Likely you’re using satellite services every day, whether directly or indirectly. This is because there are many different types of satellites, each of which power applications within multiple sectors, for hundreds and thousands of companies.

Types of satellites

There are multiple types of satellites, each tasked to a specific function:

Earth Observation

Earth observation satellites provide an image of the planet surface, which can be used for gathering environmental and human activity data.

Communication

Communication satellites power both one-way and two-way communication on the ground.

Navigation

There are two types of navigation satellites: PNT and GNSS. Forming clusters, these satellites provide time and location data.

Here are some examples of how different sectors use satellite services:

  • Banking – Managing and synchronising transactions
  • Energy Networks – Organising power grids
  • Transport – Enabling autonomous functionality
  • Defence – Guiding aircraft and weapons systems
  • TV – Powering scheduled programming
  • Civil – Navigating energy services
  • Consumer – Improving service with location data
  • Weather – Monitoring weather conditions and environmental incidents

Learn more about how satellites are used on Earth

Clearly applications for satellites are far-reaching. According to Visual Capitalist, Communication satellites are the most common type of satellite in orbit, with the Commercial sector leading the way in satellite use cases. This is unsurprising as many commercial satellites can be repurposed, or re-tasked, to different applications as they’re needed.

Real-world satellites

Starlink – Launched by SpaceX, Starlink is a cluster of satellites designed for low-latency, widespread internet provision.

Amazon – Amazon is planning to launch a constellation of over 3,000 satellites, known as a mega-constellation, for internet provision.

Planet Labs – Planet provide earth observation imagery from nearly 200 satellites for commercial and government companies.

The very real issue of satellite and space risk

Space risk is somewhat of a misnomer. While this literally means the potential risks posed to satellites, what it really represents is the risk to Earth-bound operations. As a world so entirely connected to satellites, and by satellites, satellite risk has a direct impact on how our societies function.

Any damage to satellites can stop a service in its tracks. Therefore, space risk is a prevalent threat we need to be aware of.

Type of risks for satellites:

Space weather

From meteorites to solar wind, various space weather conditions can knock a satellite off course or even damage it.

Conjunctions

Space junk can interfere with satellite activity, by getting too close and disrupting service or hitting one and damaging it.

Anti-satellite systems

Humans can launch attacks against satellites to disrupt their service.

Satellite risks are increasing

The saturation of space is making these risks much more prevalent and more serious. Satellite deployments are increasing. There have been up to 11,000 satellites launched since the beginning of the space age, and in comparison, Amazon plan to launch over 3,000 in the next few years. Equally, there are around 6,000 defunct satellites – from rockets to damaged objects – that continue to circle the earth unused.

Military and government used to be the leaders in satellite launches, but the commercialisation of this technology means new developments are rising exponentially.

The rising volume of satellites has 3 primary impacts on risk:

  1. Increased fallout – Greater usage of space assets in a number of industries means the fallout of disruption or degradation is expanding downstream and across countries.
  2. Increased competition – Every new satellite launched, and every defunct satellite left in orbit, represents an additional opportunity for collision or interference.
  3. Increased consequences – Many services that use satellites are associated with high-risk implications. For example, disruption to military operations could be life-threatening.

Read more about the increasing risks for satellites in space

The problems for future

As discussed, this trend is unsustainable. If numbers continue to increase at this rate we will eventually reach complete saturation.

Space debris is becoming a particular concern in many circles as it takes up greater areas and continually increases the risk of collisions. While companies are developing great solutions to recover debris, with innovative initiatives like AstroScale proactively driving new solutions, real progress will take time.

What does this mean for us?

Our increased reliance on space technology makes this rising risk extremely important. Degraded service will have significant knock-on effects for operators and end-users of satellite services.

Services that thousands of people use every day, such as transport networks, financial transactions, and energy networks, could come to a halt, causing widespread economic or societal disruption.

It’s also important to note that as our satellite services become more integrated – such as 5G hybrid communications, GPS for informing driving automation – these knock-on effects become more complex and wide reaching.

Historically, this isn’t an issue that has received much analysis. But as we deploy more satellites, and use these services more frequently, the downstream impacts of satellite disruption need to be explored.

What happens when a satellite is damaged

When a satellite is damaged or has to perform a manoeuvrer to avoid debris, this will disrupt services on the ground. The severity and the nature of the impact seen on Earth will vary. It could result in business impacts, mission disruption, or even threats to human life. This all depends on the purpose of the satellite and the downstream applications associated with it.

Here are some key examples of use cases and what disruption might mean to these users:

Defence

Communications – Defence relies on satellites for important lines of communication, including networked access, which when disrupted could put active field missions at risk.

Positioning – Navigation is fundamental for defensive use cases, including targeting systems. Satellite degradation could leave vessels blind and without guidance, or receiving false signals.

Imagery – Users utilise imagery intelligence to monitor and plan operations. Being cut off from this data could cause mission delays and abortion.

Logistics and Infrastructure

Communications – Satellites provide remote infrastructure with long-range communication. Disruption to these lines could have a ripple effect in operations across countries.

Positioning – Timing signals enable synchronised logistics, finance, energy as well as transport. If these satellites were disrupted many CNI businesses would be halted from business-as-usual at a global scale.

EXAMPLE: The Evergiven Suez Canal incident demonstrates how widespread the impacts of any disruption to logistics can be. This blockage in the canal caused global issues for supply chain and resulted in massive costs for many businesses, amounting to a $916million claim made to Ever Given.

Imagery – Earth imagery is used to monitor infrastructure development and change, so although disruption in this case wouldn’t be critical, it could cause delays.

Finance

Positioning – High-speed trading, stocks, banking transactions, card activity and more use timing signals to operate. Disruption could cause automation interference and stock market delays or losses.

Find more examples of the impacts of satellite disruption here

The need for satellite monitoring

The smooth functioning of satellites clearly has global impact. Our reliance on these technologies, as well as their power to affect our fundamental businesses, operations, infrastructure, and even politics, means it is absolutely necessary to safeguard them.

Monitoring satellite behaviour is ultimately an investment into our society as a whole.

But more than this, we need a way to understand how changes in this behaviour will affect different sectors, organisations, services and people. Currently, most organisations, even those most dependent on satellites, don’t have access to this insight.

If the inevitable happens – a satellite experiences some level of disruption – the majority of actors will be entirely unprepared.

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Key challenges in understanding satellite risk

We’ve just shown how significant the threat of satellite disruption is, and yet it’s not a threat we integrate into daily decision-making. Why not?

There are several key challenges associated with understanding satellite risk:

  • The downstream effects of an impact are complex, widespread and multifaceted
  • Visualising connections between space assets and ground activities is difficult
  • Analysing knock-on effects is challenging without the right tools
  • There has been very little development into satellite modelling solutions

Learn more in our blog

As more satellites are launched and services developed this becomes even more challenging. More layers and branches and connections will be added to an already complex environment, creating more risk and more areas of analysis.

Our SpaceAware platform aims to clarify this complexity. It has been built to address our increasing reliance on satellites and integrate space threats into on-the-ground decision-making and planning.

How SpaceAware protects earthly use cases

How it works

SpaceAware models the second and third order risks of impacts to space assets. Based on extensive risk and threat analysis capabilities, SpaceAware clearly visualises the various dependencies on satellites and how disruptions to these assets will affect downstream services or missions.

It can also provide insight into the likelihood of these events and allow users to model different ‘what-if’ events as well as known incidents, such as space weather. This is a completely one-of-a-kind solution. Stakeholders can now address the threats associated with space and use this intelligence to transform how they plan strategies, missions, and risk assessments for the better.

Just as satellites have been placed at the forefront of technological development, so too can they be placed at the forefront of decision-making.

RELATED: Managing the impact of space debris

Key features

  • Threat analysis and risk profiling for both assets and missions
  • Ability to map 500 assets and 5000 vulnerabilities in minutes
  • Timely modelling and simulation of space effects
  • Analysis of outcomes and vulnerabilities in missions
  • Intuitive user interface and visualisations
  • Ability to assess interactions between multiple platforms

Benefits for users

  • Delivers user-oriented operational intelligence
  • End-to-end downstream situational awareness
  • Users can prioritise and deconflict tasks
  • Informs advanced response strategies and risk mitigation plans
  • Can be used for evolving and future events
  • Reduces time and money lost due to satellite disruption

Download our product sheet to discover more about SpaceAware

We are continually developing SpaceAware to include more capabilities and address new evolving challenges. If you want to know more about the impacts of satellite risk on your organisation or how SpaceAware can help you minimise risk and create effective strategies, get in touch.

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