Kate Byng-Hall weighs up the numerous benefits of satellites alongside the darker side of human technology in the sky.
Photo by Antonio Grosz
Since the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the UN Satellite Registry has recorded over 9000 objects being launched into the Earth’s orbit. Despite thousands of these no longer being operational, many of them remain above us – the atmosphere is gradually filling up with our technology, and consequently also our waste.
Satellite technology offers us countless valuable insights into what’s going on in our planet, but the extent of the information they can garner is also leading to concern about possible privacy breaches as the tech continues to advance.
Without satellite technology, the world could not operate in the way we’re used to. Satellites form the infrastructure which provides us with GPS systems. Without them, we’d have no Satnavs, no Snapchat Maps, and no Google Maps – essentially, we’d all be lost half the time. The technology works through a network of signals between our devices and 24 satellites around the world which ascertain our exact positioning on the planet, as well as everything around us.
Satellites are used to assist in environmental monitoring, as censors in the sky can be used to track CO2 emissions. NASA uses aerosol technology in their satellites to detect particles in the air from volcanos, dust storms and greenhouse gases. Sentinel censors can even differentiate between naturally-released and man-made CO2. German manufacturer OHB-System has recently signed a €445m (£400m) contract to begin construction of a satellite network to do this – the CO2M constellation will collect data about the emissions of all countries who signed the Paris Agreement in 2016 to ensure targets are being met.
Indeed, NASA has been using satellites for environmental purposes for decades, tracking and recording solar activity, sea level rise, atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, the ozone layer, air pollution, and changes in sea and land ice. The observational potential of satellites also means they are used to generate our weather forecasts, as well as to spot and predict natural disasters like hurricanes.
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However, with the observational powers of satellites constantly advancing in sophistication at a rapid pace, people are becoming concerned about how they may start to invade our privacy and compromise security.
There are currently over 750 satellites in orbit dedicated to capturing images of the Earth’s surface. These are predominantly used by farmers to monitor crops, city planners to aid with the plotting of roads or developments, the military to aid deployments, meteorologists to track weather patterns, and GPS companies.
Just this summer, satellite images and infrared analysis were used to identify formerly unknown colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica, increasing the global population of the iconic bird by 5-10%.
Satellites’ imagery-capture can also have political significance, for example, satellite images identified re-education camps for Uighur Muslims in China after the country’s government denied their existence. However, the tech is not infallible, as George Bush used it to confirm that Iraq possessed chemical weapons and thence justify declaring war on the country, when in fact this wasn’t the case.
The US currently has a 25cm-limit on the clarity of images which can be taken via satellites, but no such limit exists in other countries like China, and it is suspected that spy systems on satellites could be able to take photos with a 1cm-resolution – that’s clear enough to read registration numbers or recognise faces. While, currently, it would be very expensive to achieve accurate surveillance of someone using satellite images, this may not always be the case, as some companies have the goal of establishing a 24-hour image of the entire planet – essentially creating a high-quality ‘living map’ of Earth from above.
“People’s movements, what kinds of shops do you go to, where do your kids go to school, what kind of religious institutions do you visit, what are your social patterns. All of these kinds of questions could in principle be interrogated, should someone be interested.” – Peter Martinez, Secure World Foundation
Musk’s Ambitious Plans
Anxiety surrounding satellites has spiked in recent months in response to Elon Musk’s Starlink initiative. In Spring of this year, Musk’s company SpaceX launched two spacecraft carrying 60 satellites into the atmosphere in the first move to establish his Starlink satellite network which is intended to eventually comprise of 42,000 separate objects in orbit.
His aim is to implement a “multiplanetary” society in which everyone can have internet access regardless of where they live. Besides making him lots of money, this would democratise internet access, thus improving education and employment opportunities in developing countries. He summarised this in a slightly ominous statement:
“My clients will be able to do whatever they want, just as I am able to do whatever I want”.
The extent of these plans will have undeniable ecological implications. The thousands of satellites will emit light, causing light pollution which will disrupt astronomers’ observations of distant space. Some of the satellites would be only 600km above the Earth’s surface, meaning they may even sometimes be visible to the naked eye.
The shear quantity of the objects would also vastly increase the risk of collisions in the atmosphere. There are already 34,000 pieces of space debris 10cm or larger, and an estimated 128 million pieces bigger than 1mm. Each object increases the threat of collisions. The likelihood of a collision occurring is currently 1/10,000, but this would rise greatly with the introduction of all of Musk’s satellites.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler created an argument named Kessler Syndrome that if there is too much space junk in orbit, it could result in a chain reaction where more and more objects collide and create new debris in the process, ending at a point where Earth's orbit becomes unusable. The advancement of satellite technology could well end up being yet another instance of human ambition overtaking itself without sufficient foresight, resulting in potential disaster for both society and the planet.
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