Why do we need satellites?

Article by Eleanor King-Turner – 3 minute read

Image by NASA on Unsplash

The theme of World Space Week 2020 is “Satellites Improve Life” – find out more about why we need them, Elon Musk’s ambitious project to revolutionise our internet connection, and why the thousands of metal boxes in orbit are inadvertently posing a modern threat to our night sky.

Now, more than ever, the world relies on the internet nearly as much as humans rely on oxygen. It is currently estimated that over half of the global population has access to an internet connection, with China alone having 829 million users. But all this demand needs a monumental effort to supply connectivity 24/7, all around the globe.

What is being done to meet the demand?

When you make a Google search or log on to Netflix, your request is likely to be sent up to a satellite in space (that’s really happening right now as you’re reading this article!). Here’s where Elon Musk comes in. As of April 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had given his company SpaceX permission to launch over 12,000 satellites in a project called Starlink. Most of the satellites will be used for this very purpose, receiving signals from devices all over the world and delivering those all-important emails, Facebook messages and banana bread recipes. A few have been reserved by the US Air Force, and some will be used for science experiments. The project is estimated to cost $10billion, which for context would buy you the whole Manchester United football team, twice.

A close-up of 60 Starlink satellites ready to be put into orbit from a Falcon 9 rocket (Source: Starlink Mission, Official SpaceX Photos).

These satellites are already being launched into space, using SpaceX’s very own Falcon 9 reusable rockets. There have now been more than 13 batch launches, visible to the naked eye as a trail of white dots moving quickly over the night sky. The company claims it will be able to provide “near global coverage” by 2021, and they’re not the only ones with lofty ambitions: Amazon is also planning to launch 3000 satellites to serve hard-to-reach communities. This means that those of you living in the countryside will finally have the superfast connection you could only dream of before!

Is this a perfect solution?

All this sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is all true but sadly not all good. In the same way that our planet has a waste pollution problem, it’s also dangerous to have lots of space junk. There are already more than 19000 artificial objects in orbit, around 5000 of which are satellites. Such a high number of satellites creates an obvious challenge when they are no longer needed, or if they are faulty once they get into orbit. Although the majority of Starlink’s satellites will be directed to de-orbit (burn up in the atmosphere) successfully at the end of their life, the first batch had 5% of satellites unresponsive, and they will take up to 5 years to burn up in the atmosphere. The growing accumulation of space junk is a pressing problem, although there are a number of projects currently working out how to start the cleanup effort, including the suitably-named ClearSpace-1 and RemoveDEBRIS.

As well as the lack of space ‘bin-men’, astronomers are not happy as the Starlink project will interfere with their observations. The satellites are, as far as the astronomers are concerned, just big metal reflective boxes flying in front of the stars and causing a lot of light pollution, and they’re super hard to remove from images. As described by astronomer Kelsey Johnson in this TED talk – between all of the private companies like SpaceX sending up these tens of thousands of satellites, eventually they will outnumber all the visible stars in the sky. The good news is that SpaceX are now trying to find ways to mitigate the impact for astronomers.

Image of Starlink satellites (white streaks) taken by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) (Image credit CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/DECam DELVE Survey).

Despite the theory that space is infinite, the portion of it available for technology orbiting the Earth is distinctly limited, and becoming massively overcrowded as a result of all these satellites. In fact, on 28th August 2019 the European Space Agency nearly had to maneuver their spacecraft ‘Aeolus’ out of its planned path to avoid a collision with a Starlink satellite whose alert system had failed. 

There’s no doubt that satellites have revolutionised our society. But, like all modern technologies, the ease and convenience satellites bring into our lives come with unintended (or possibly just overlooked) consequences. Although there are currently no international regulations governing space debris, perhaps the international effort required to tackle climate change might lead to some positive collaborations out in space, too.

Bonus resources:

If you want to visualise the vast array of orbiting space objects, this map shows them all and has filters you can explore such as only show recently launched ones, or those categorised as junk.

For information on when a Starlink satellite might be passing through a patch of sky near you, SpaceX have created a tracker website.