What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of space?
If a new landmark report from British satellite company Inmarsat is to be believed, it’s likely to be about aliens, Star Wars or billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson throwing themselves into the cosmos as space tourists .
The study, which Inmarsat describes as a “red flag” for the industry, surveyed 20,000 people in 11 different countries with results showing that 97% of people see space as a threat.
Foremost among these concerns are the apprehension of the impact of space activity on our climate and the fear of space debris and collisions in orbit.
Perhaps more worrying for the industry is that while GPS/Sat Nav technologies are considered the most important business in space, less than one in 10 people think about connectivity. and global communications when she thinks of space.
Benefits of the space industry overlooked
Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri says this is a problem because public support is “essential” to future space development.
“We want people to be 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 a lot 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 being overlooked.
“People seem largely unaware of the role the space industry already plays in their daily lives, or the major contribution it will make to solving major problems, from tackling climate change to connecting the billions of people who are still not connected,” he said. said.
Suri cited navigation, television and humanitarian support when terrestrial networks are compromised as key applications for which we should thank the space industry.
“It is used for weather forecasting. It will be used to measure reforestation and deforestation. It can be used for precision farming to increase yields,” he added.
Are concerns about space debris 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 now around 5,200 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) – that is, at an altitude below 2,000 km – compared to around 1,400 in 2014. And another 100,000 satellites could be launched in LEOt if the constellation mega-projects are carried out.
Mega-constellations are basically systems involving hundreds or tens of thousands of orbiting satellites that provide broadband connectivity.
“There is already a lot of space junk in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Some of them can be measured. Some of them cannot be measured,” Suri said.
“And so, two things happen. These mega-constellations mean there will be tens of thousands of new satellites in roughly the same orbit.”
In terms of the risks associated with these planned satellites, Suri points to three main issues.
“Number one is the problem of environmental degradation,” he said.
When satellites decay and de-orbit, large amounts of aluminum can be deposited in the upper atmosphere (between 85 km and 600 km above the Earth’s surface), potentially compounding the problem 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 a number of satellites start colliding with each other and objects collide even more. And that results in a cascading amount of space debris, not just limited to orbit,” Suri added.
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 in which you get the formation of a monopoly and no one else can deploy satellites in that orbit.”
Solutions to the problem of space debris?
So how can the space sector allay these concerns?
Inmarsat is urging industry players to come together and adopt tougher rules on satellite launches, working closely with national regulators on the issue.
“When they [national regulators] provide market access, they should be looking for stocks to mitigate space debris or stocks to achieve deorbit without disintegration,” Suri said.
The company is also calling on advanced space economies to agree on basic minimum standards for satellites.
The final recommendation is that the International Telecommunications Union get a broader mandate to not only look at spectrum, but also the issue of space debris.
In Suri’s eyes, it’s not too late for the industry to act on this.
“It’s time. You know, better safe than sorry,” he said.