What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of space?
If a new landmark report from the British satellite company Inmarsat is to be believed, it is likely to be something like aliens, Star Wars, or billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson flying into the cosmos as space tourists.
The study, which Inmarsat is describing as an ‘awakening’ for the industry, surveyed 20,000 people in 11 different countries, with results showing that 97 percent of people actually see space as a threat.
Chief among these concerns is apprehension about the impact of space activity on our climate and fear of space debris and collisions in orbit.
Perhaps more worrisome for the industry is the realization that while GPS/Sat Nav technologies are considered the most important activities in space, less than 1 in 10 people think of global connectivity and communications when they think of space.
Space industry benefits overlooked
Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri believes this is a problem because public support is ‘essential’ for the future development of the space.
“We want people attracted to the sector. We want people to understand the industry. And so I think this report is a wake-up call for the industry to do much more to explain the current and future benefits of space,” he told Euronews Next.
In Suri’s view, many of the benefits that space exploration brings to our daily lives are currently neglected.
“People seem largely unaware of the role the space industry already plays in their daily lives, or the huge contribution it will make to solving big problems, from helping to tackle climate change to connecting billions of people who remain disconnected.” he said. said.
Suri cited navigation, television and humanitarian support when terrestrial networks are compromised as key applications for which the space industry should be thanked.
“It’s used for weather forecasting. It will be used to measure reforestation and deforestation. It can be used for precision agriculture to increase yields,” he added.
Are Space Debris Concerns Valid?
Still, while Hollywood and science fiction may be partly responsible for younger generations’ more negative perception of space, Suri acknowledges that the issue of space debris is a real concern that the industry needs to address.
According to him, there are currently about 5,200 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – that is, at an altitude of less than 2,000 km – above the approximately 1,400 in 2014. And another 100,000 satellites could be launched in LEOt if the current mega- constellation projects are carried out.
Megaconstellations are essentially systems involving hundreds or tens of thousands of orbiting satellites that provide broadband connectivity.
“There is already a lot of space debris in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Some of them can be measured. Some of it cannot be measured,” Suri said.
“And then two things are happening. These megaconstellations mean that there will be tens of thousands of new satellites in approximately the same orbit.”
Regarding the risks associated with these planned satellites, Suri points out three main issues.
“Number one is the issue of environmental degradation,” he said.
When satellites decay and deorbit, large amounts of aluminum can be deposited in the upper atmosphere (between 85 km and 600 km above the Earth’s surface), potentially aggravating the issue of climate change.
Second, launching an unlimited number of satellites increases the risk of orbital congestion.
“This can give rise to Kessler syndrome, which means that multiple satellites start colliding with each other and objects collide even more. And that results in a cascading amount of space debris, not just orbit-restricted,” added Suri.
The third main concern is associated with Kessler syndrome and is a phenomenon called orbital exclusion.
“A company or a country can dominate a certain orbit where you get the monopoly formation and no one else can deploy any satellites in that orbit.”
Solutions to the space debris issue?
So how can the space industry alleviate these concerns?
Inmarsat is urging industry players to band together and adopt stricter rules when it comes to launching satellites, working closely with national regulators on the matter.
“When they [national regulators] give market access, they should look for actions to mitigate space debris or actions to successfully deorbit without decay,” Suri said.
The company is also asking advanced space economies to agree to basic minimum standards for satellites.
The final recommendation is that the International Telecommunication Union get a broader mandate to not only look at spectrum, but also the space debris issue.
In Suri’s eyes, it’s not too late for the industry to act on the matter.
“There’s time. You know, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.