One of the most interesting aspects of serving broadband from low-orbit satellites is that it brings issues related to space into the broadband discussion. Space issues were less important for high earth orbit satellites that sit 20,000 miles above the earth. Other than an occasional impact from sunspots, there wasn’t much of note. But there are two recent events that highlight our new focus on low-earth orbit satellites. I would never have imagined a decade ago that I would be interested in these topics in terms of the impact on broadband.
The first is a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). The legislation is called the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act. The bill is intended to begin the development of a technology called active debris removal (ADR) that would be used to remove dangerous debris from low earth orbit.
The risk of space debris has been well documented by NASA and others. There are over one hundred million pieces of debris orbiting the earth today. These range in size from dust-sized up to out-of-service satellites and rocket boosters. Space will be getting a lot more crowded as the industry plans to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites in the coming years. Space is going to get crowded.
So why is debris a problem? The issue was described by NASA scientists Don Kessler in 1978. He postulated that as mankind put more objects into orbit that the inevitability of collisions would increase and that over time there would be more and more debris. This is easy to understand when you realize that every piece of debris is circulating at over 20,000 miles per hour. When objects collide, even more debris is created, and Kessler postulated that there would eventually be a cloud of debris that would destroy anything in orbit, making low-space unusable.
The legislation would fund research into different technologies that can be used to clean debris, with NASA tackling some of the trials. The hope is for an eventual system that scrubs space of debris as it is created to keep the valuable low-orbit space usable.
In other news, President Putin of Russia has threatened to destroy Starlink and other satellites that are helping Ukraine in the war between the two countries. Targeting satellites as part of war is an idea that has been used by Hollywood for years. The first such movie I remember is Moonraker, the James Bond movie that sent the British secret service agent into space.
In September, a Russian diplomat said at the United Nations that satellites could be legitimate military targets. He argued that civilian satellites that provide broadband might be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty that provides for only peaceful uses of satellite technology. He is obviously aiming his comments at Starlink, although in a few years, there will be multiple companies in the same category.
Russia has already been targeting Starlink with cyberwarfare hacking to try to corrupt the satellite software. It’s been reported that Russia was also looking for a way to identify the location of the satellite receivers on the ground. But it was clear from recent threats that Russia is hinting at some method of crippling or destroying satellites in orbit.
The earth has become massively reliant on satellite technology. It’s now becoming a source of broadband, but there are many other vital uses such as GPS technology, weather forecasting, studying and tracking resources like water and minerals, and numerous other uses.
The idea of attacks on satellites is scary. This might range from some sort of hunter satellites that attack other satellites or more indiscriminately through something like nuclear blasts that would disable all electronics. But the investment in satellites is huge and would not easily be replaced. The bigger question raised is if it is worth spending money on satellites that can be destroyed.
It’s likely that the threats are just rhetoric because every country depends on satellites for a lot of everyday functions. But countries have done insane things in wartime before, so it’s not off the table.