Communication satellites connect the world in a way that no other infrastructure can and, just like their terrestrial counterparts, the overall market for satellite communications is developing at an unparalleled rate.
However, when hyper-commercialized without widespread urgent regulation, the technology poses sustainability and monopoly risks, as well as space debris hazards, Peter Hadinger, Chief Technology Officer, Inmarsat told the DigiconAsia.net team.
Read on to find out why…
DigiconAsia: What are the consequences of commercialization outpacing governance in the communications satellites / Low Earth Orbit industry?
Peter Hadinger (PH): Firstly, tens of thousands of new satellites being launched into low earth orbit (LEO) create a real and present danger of collisions that would contaminate this limited resource for years to come.
In addition, as they say, what goes up must come down: LEO satellites will eventually re-enter and burn up, releasing a variety of chemicals and particulate matter into the upper atmosphere. With lifetimes of only a few years, these satellites require constant replacement, which means countless rocket launches and an endless supply of such pollution on the way up, and on the way down.
Finally, even if space and upper atmospheric pollution could be avoided, there is the very real risk of ‘orbital exclusion’, where portions of space get so crowded that they become monopolized and unavailable for further use by others.
These dangers point to why it is so critical that key players within the satellite industry and government bodies work together to ensure that aspects of long-term competition and long-term innovation are balanced so that no single company or country will act alone to maximize its profit or control at the world’s expense.
Satellite services of all sorts will continue to provide unique benefits to everyone on Earth—not just a select few.
DigiconAsia: How are these concerns being addressed globally, and what are the challenges in striking a balance between competition and compliance with ESG?
PH: As experts in global mobile communications we have learned that besides their environmental dangers, massive constellations are not the best way to deliver satellite communications services technically or financially. As New Space operators are now learning, performance in congested hotspots such as ports and straits is what defines the mobile user experience.
There is a need for a complete mobility-focused solution that can seamlessly integrate geosynchronous (GEO) networks with terrestrial 5G networks to eliminate local hotspots, to deliver orders of magnitude more long-term capacity than any satellite constellation could, at far more cost effective rates and without massive space pollution. The first set of technical trials have been completed in Singapore using ships as ranger extenders.
DigiconAsia:What are thelimitations of LEO technology that GEO networks overcome?
PH: LEO systems often bank much of their service differentiation on lower latency. First, it should be noted, that latency differences among satellite solutions are rarely a factor in customer perceptions of service quality, which are usually dominated by application and remote server speeds. Also:
- The impact of satellite distance on this perceived service quality is low because customers see only the time to get information from a remote network, not the time for the signal to reach the satellite.
- Large LEO constellations cannot deliver both global coverage and very low latency—it is one or the other. To deliver global coverage in a LEO system requires inter-satellite links (ISL), constantly changing routing and retransmission, diverse remote gateways and terrestrial backhaul, each of which introduces latency well beyond the simple satellite signal ‘hop’ figures usually mentioned. The result for the global mobility market is latency much closer to that of GEOs than LEO players would ever advertise.
- Limited by their small footprints, or the capacity of their crosslinks, LEO operators are forced to rely on widely distributed ground stations. Geographically, many of these will end up located in countries that can introduce significant security challenges to government and industrial networks. The “all over the sky” nature of LEO user links also increases the vulnerability of government operations to detection and countermeasures.
GEO satellites have far longer lifespans and cover 1/3 of the Earth each, meaning that far fewer stations need to be launched into space. Their orbits are 1,000 times bigger, and all of them move in the same direction and at the same speed. At the end of their lifespan, they are moved further out into space rather than left to randomly drift amongst other satellite and eventually burn up in the atmosphere.
Note that integrating GEO and LEO can be integrated with terrestrial 5G networks to reduce traffic hotspots in ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship connectivity in busy ports and shipping lanes.
DigiconAsia: With your CEO raising the alarm on orbital congestion issues, what is being done to raise the alarm louder?
PH: As a founding member of both the industry-wide Space Data Association (SDA) and the government-industry cooperative Commercial Integration Cells in the US and UK, we are working with others who share our concerns and exchanging real-time data on space operations to reduce the probability of collisions and the increase of space debris to make space operations safer and more reliable.
I am proud to say that we are now applying all the experience gained to spearhead initiatives to create the foundations for future space traffic management.
DigiconAsia thanks Peter for helping to raise awareness on the dangers of lax space traffic governance.