Satellite sector growth needs common world approach, warns Inmarsat head
Image credit: Photo 130672376 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime.com
Elon Musk's Starlink, Amazon, and several Chinese operators have already announced plans to launch large satellite constellations, which could lead to orbital congestion challenges.
British satellite company Inmarsat warned on Tuesday of the environmental risks of unregulated space sector expansion.
Inmarsat chief executive Rajeev Suri has welcomed the increase in innovation in satellite constellations in low orbit that has taken place over the last few years, but called for better industry and regulatory co-ordination as they are launched.
Addressing the Royal Aeronautical Society’s conference ‘Towards a Space Enabled Net Zero Earth’, Suri focused attention on major factors threatening long-term environmental and economic sustainability.
"Mega-constellations are talking about tens of thousands of new satellites during this decade - satellites with an expected life of only five to 10 years," he said.
"The resulting debris creates hazards not just in a particular orbit, but for anything passing through that orbit. We simply do not yet understand all the risks this creates and do not yet have all the technologies needed to manage the situation effectively."
Over the last few years there has been a significant boom of the global space sector, with many operators looking to launch huge networks of low-orbit satellites to beam broadband internet.
SpaceX-owned Starlink is leading the way so far with over 2,000 mass-produced small satellites in orbit and permission for 12,000. In contrast, UK government-backed OneWeb is building a 650-strong network and Amazon plans to launch its first prototype satellites by the end of the year.
Inmarsat, which is being acquired by US rival Viasat in a $7.3bn (about £6.2bn) deal, has 14 satellites in higher level geostationary orbit - providing services for shipping, aviation and governments - but is also planning its own small and targeted low-orbit constellation.
Last year saw a record number of objects launched into space, with 1,807 leaving the planet in 2021: a 42 per cent increase compared to 2020. During 2020 and 2021, there were 3,081 objects launched into space, which accounts for approximately 25 per cent of the objects ever launched.
In Suri's view, unmanaged space sector expansion could exacerbate environmental damage, stifle innovation and undermine the long-term capability of satellites to help combat climate change.
“Space is increasingly important for the creation of a sustainable world," he added. "While the role of new players – with new investment and innovations – is to be welcomed, space is too important an asset to be driven by short-term thinking. To protect our shared future, there must be a common approach and common rules that protect the space environment too."
Use of satellite communications is already helping many organisations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the aviation, maritime and Internet of Things sectors. However, satellites could also have detrimental effects on the environment.
The journal Nature noted that satellite re‑entries from one of the mega‑constellations alone could deposit more aluminium into Earth’s upper atmosphere than is deposited through meteoroids, becoming the dominant source of high‑altitude alumina. This would risk reflecting solar radiation in an uncontrolled manner, which senior scientists have said could create severe consequences for the environment on Earth.
"I am concerned that these advances will be put at risk if we continue the ‘leap before you think’ approach when it comes to the space environment,” Suri said.
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