Final frontier becoming a troubled environment
December 7, 2022
Editor’s note: Down here on earth, delegates attending the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity are in Montreal, deliberating on how to preserve our planet’s unique biodiversity. However, as our correspondent Elizabeth Howell found, environmental discussions now reach the highest levels — well beyond the limits of our comfortable atmosphere.
Canadians' concern about the environment appears to extend well into orbit.
A survey from the UK-based satellite communications operator Inmarsat, released this fall, found almost half of Canadians, or 48 percent, are worried about space junk and collisions, while 33 percent worry about damaging the Earth's atmosphere through more frequent rocket launches. These results line up with the 47 percent and 35 percent of surveyed participants globally, who share similar concerns about how we use space (although the methodology and sample size of this poll were not released publicly).
As such, Inmarsat chief technology officer Peter Hadinger told Research Money the report is an example of the growing environmental concerns about space exploration — and that more information is needed to protect space as best as possible.
"The climate debates have taught us the need to deal in facts, not emotion," he said. "To meet the aims we have for the environment, without taking steps back in progress, will require continued improvements in technology to ‘green’ our energy production, potentially even beaming power to Earth from space.”
Pointing to the growing number of satellites flying to space each year, Hadinger said sustainability needs to be top-of-mind, if we are going to avoid collisions and congestion. The United States is already developing new frameworks for doing just that. As part of a bid to reduce the volume of orbiting space junk, for example, the Federal Communications Commission, suggested satellites be de-orbited after five years, instead of the previous standard of 25.
Inmarsat is calling for more action like this, said Hadinger, "to protect access to space for all, before it is too late.”
The White House also pledged to not conduct anti-satellite tests in orbit that generate debris through collision, as Russia did with such a test in November 2021. The resulting swarm of material has repeatedly come close to the International Space Station and SpaceX Starlink satellites, forcing evasive maneuvers.
While environmental concerns dominated the Inmarsat survey, Hadinger noted the company’s desire to "occupy a far greater share of the public consciousness”, by asking about people’s interest in the broader space community.
"Space benefits almost everyone every day, and yet most are unaware of this," he added, referring to applications ranging from telecommunications to weather forecasts to tracking packages in delivery. All of these aspects rely upon satellites continuing to be launched safely.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of orbital infrastructure, Hadinger cited "inspiration", a theme that continues to attract public attention, which recently marked the 65th year of the Space Age that started with the Soviet Union's launch of the world’s first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957. A parallel anniversary arrived this month, with the 50th anniversary of the human moon landing (Apollo 17) in December 1972. Meanwhile, NASA is planning to put more people on the moon with its new Artemis program, but the earliest crewed landing is forecast for no earlier than 2025.
While people in space remain few and far between, Hadinger observed, satellite launches now happen several times a week, making space look like just another place to go about our business. This outlook may particularly be true of "Gen Z" survey participants, who were born between the mid 1990s and early 2010s, an era of Internet-ready mobile devices, and for most, broadband Internet at home. As for the original "Space Agers", who recall the heady, early years of the space program in the 1960s, these folks are aging or retiring.
"Our industry must continue to raise the profile of its pioneering work and re-instil a sense of wonder,” Hadinger insisted. “Only then can we inspire and educate the world about the value of space, and ensure it benefits all of us down here on Earth.”
Global connectivity has come a long way since Sputnik, he noted, but access still remains largely unequal. According to Inmarsat, more than a third of the eight billion people on Earth do not have access to Internet, a gap that represents a huge market opportunity for companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, or Canada's Telesat — each of which would like to manage constellations of satellites, optimized to make mobile connections in remote areas.
Inmarsat likewise participates in this market, focusing on seaborne and airborne Internet. The firm has been calling for more space sustainability in recent months asking for more regulation, Hadinger said. "[We're] calling on industry operators, national governments and regulators to take coordinated action to reduce space debris, enhance safety and better manage the expansion of [satellite] mega-constellations in low Earth orbit.”