Insight | Ensuring safe space operations


Ensuring safe space operations


The geostationary orbit where Inmarsat operates is a vital resource for humanity, which is why Inmarsat is committed to being a responsible actor in space.

Space is an exciting new frontier and as we enter the second Space Age, it heralds greater exploration of the Solar System than the world has ever seen, with the establishment of bases and colonies off-world planned in the foreseeable future.

Closer to home, space has so much to offer us on Earth too. From the promise of safeguarding our planet as better climate change monitoring is put in place, to the utilisation of satellites to reach the currently unconnected through telecommunications from orbit. Satellite connectivity can also offer protection for those who live on land or are out at sea, as well as those flying far from home.

Although we may not realise it, our daily lives depend on satellites; from financial transactions to navigation for travel, in hospitals and on transport networks. Without them, life would be very different and the challenges we face much more difficult to overcome. A UK Government report estimated that for just this one country, the loss of satellite navigation satellites alone would cost more than £1 billion per day.

However, as with any other human activity, it can be fraught with dangers and it requires those operating in space to do so responsibly, to ensure that it remains a resource for all of us for many generations to come.

Space debris (Copyright: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Hazards in space

Recent news has seen challenges around the uncontrolled re-entry of space debris and a number of reports of near misses of satellites in the ever more congested Low Earth Orbit (LEO), as well as the damage caused to one of the International Space Station’s robotic arm from a piece of space junk.

In addition, a recent scientific report from Nature calls for the urgent need for a regulatory framework and international cooperation amongst new mega-constellation operators to prevent serious risk, not only to ground based astronomy and collisions in orbit, but also to the environment - “satellite re-entries from the Starlink mega-constellation alone could deposit more aluminum into Earth’s upper atmosphere than what is done through meteoroids.

A small hole seen in the ISS Canadarm2. (Credit: NASA/Canadian Space Agency) (NASA 2021)

The animation below shows different types of space debris objects and different debris sizes in orbit around Earth. (Copyright ESA - European Space Agency) 

The Combined Space Operations Centre currently tracks more than 8,500 objects in LEO and with thousands more satellites due to be launched into that orbit, humanity is risking collisions that could have a domino effect and ultimately damage other networks or even render some orbits around the  Earth unusable.

In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed a theoretical scenario, which has come to be known as the Kessler Syndrome. He suggested that a collision in LEO could cause a cloud of debris that would go on to cause further collisions, resulting in a cascade of debris generating events and polluting space. If this Kessler Syndrome were to transpire, it would make it difficult to send satellites into some orbit for many generations, as well as creating a serious hazard for launches into higher orbits or sending crewed and uncrewed missions to the moon and other planets.

Over the years, there have been a number of near misses even with the current satellite population. The advent of mega constellations could see the number LEO satellite increase by a factor of 100 fold to nearly 100,000 satellites orbiting the Earth by 2030, leading to vastly more potential collisions warnings.

The first-ever actual accidental in-orbit collision between two satellites occurred in February 2009, above Siberia. Both satellites were destroyed, and the collision created more than 2,300 trackable fragments. Some of these fragments have now re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, where they have burned up or crashed into the ground or sea, but a large proportion remain in orbit today.  

Were pieces to collide, the average impact speed of a piece of orbital debris colliding with another object is 10 km/s (6.2 miles per second), or 36,000 km per hour (22,370 miles per hour). This is almost seven times faster than a bullet, so you can imagine the impact of such a collision.

Some debris is too small to be tracked however, and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) statistical models suggest that the true numbers of debris objects is far larger than appear in the catalogues today. It predicts as many as 34,000 objects greater than 10 cm, 900,000 objects between 1-10cm and 128 million objects under one centimetre drifting around.

This man-made debris has a likely accumulated mass of more than 9,300 tonnes and even a small piece could cause severe damage to satellites in LEO or spark the Kessler Syndrome. So what can be done to ensure more sustainable, safe space operations?

Lorem Ipsum

Discover more about the many different orbits around Earth that satellites use - from lower Earth orbit (LEO) at 250 to 1,000 miles (400 to 1,600km) above our planet to geostationary orbit (GEO) 22,000 miles up (36,000km).

Avoiding disaster

Speaking recently, Major General DeAnna Burt of the US Space Force suggested some simple rules during a talk with The Mitchell Institute:

When you launch, don’t leave needless debris.

  • Design satellites so when it stops working it “doesn’t explode or destruct itself in some way”.
  • Leave enough fuel in the satellite so it can be pushed into a disposal orbit or return into the atmosphere to burn up.
  • Don’t blow up satellites as some nations have done in the past to demonstrate anti-satellite weaponry. Thousands of pieces of debris are in orbit due to these exercises.

Inmarsat is committed to sustainability on Earth and in space, and already follows these rules. In addition, we are an Executive Director of the Space Data Association, which works with other geostationary orbit satellite operators. By sharing critical data on satellite positions and movements, and promoting responsible operations, we work to reduce the probability of collisions and the incidences of space debris to make space operations safer and more reliable.

This ‘air traffic control’ system for satellites in geostationary orbit, plus the proposed rules from the US Space Force, offer a model for newer entrants into space, launch operators around the world and those growing their presence in Low Earth Orbit. Some have referred to the mega constellation era in LEO as ‘the new wild west’ due to the outdated regulations and minimal international oversight. While this might be overstating things a little, the current situation is unsustainable and cannot be allowed to continue, and especially not continue to grow exponentially, without rapid improvements in the way space will be managed to ensure its sustainability.

With the adoption of the simple US Space Force-suggested rules, improved tracking and data sharing, the implementation of operational norms of behaviour then an environmental disaster in space will be far less likely and our further progress towards a brighter, more connected future for all would be much more likely.