How Safe are Satellites?

According to ESA there are 29,000 objects bigger than 10cm in the Earth’s orbit, of which many are actively tracked. We have had c. 60 years of spaceflight now and have sent thousands of satellites into orbit. Satellites are vital to the economy of the planet.

Objects over 10cm pose a serious threat to satellites. Those in low earth orbit travel at 17,500 mph and a collision with one of these objects could create space debris comprising of thousands of pieces and in turn, a collision with any one of these could also have a catastrophic effect. A 1cm object could disable a spacecraft and a 1mm object could destroy sub-systems on-board a space craft.

Proliferation of Space Debris is therefore a serious issue. Collisions give rise to more debris and in turn lead to yet more collisions. This is known as the Kessler effect (named after the NASA scientist Donald Kessler). It is thought that a runaway Kessler effect could therefore deny the use of space to future generations. It follows that any nation deploying weaponry to destroy satellites would be playing a dangerous and counter-productive game. Debris has risen by 50% in low orbit in the last 5 years.

Can we imagine a world without satellites? We use them to tell us where we are (GPS) and provide information about all sorts of things from weather to the position of assets in various areas. Whilst satellites have to date been something we simply accept as a part of modern life we are now forced to consider the overall proliferation of orbiting objects in greater detail. Consider how we are constantly reminded of the vulnerability of computer systems on earth and then think about how the same vulnerability exists in space. After all, Satellites will all have some form of software.

So, what can we do? Action is already taken to avoid collisions but ESA report that many of these avoidance manoeuvres are false alerts. Collision warnings will only increase though in this proliferation of satellite mega-constellations.

ESA are now undertaking Safety Activities and are seeking to develop ways of automating collision warnings and provide data to mitigate or remove space debris risks and have just commissioned a new programme in December 2019 called ClearSpace-1 which aims to launch a mission to remove space debris in 2025.

Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace:

“This is the right time for such a mission. The space debris issue is more pressing than ever before. Today we have nearly 2000 live satellites in space and more than 3000 failed ones.”

And in the coming years the number of satellites will increase by an order of magnitude, with multiple mega-constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites planned for low Earth orbit to deliver wide-coverage, low-latency telecommunications and monitoring services. The need is clear for a ‘tow truck’ to remove failed satellites from this highly trafficked region.”

ESA Director General Jan Wörner:

“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,”

“That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue. ESA’s Member States have given their strong support to this new mission, which also points the way forward to essential new commercial services in the future.”

At borwell we specialise in the integration of systems and we aim to provide secure environments for our customers. We aim to make our bespoke systems ‘secure by design’. borwell are therefore actively seeking conversations with organisations who share the above concern for security issues associated with the proliferation of satellites.