Even those who weren't born at the time, have all heard of Sputnik, the first satellite launched in October 1957. A small sphere of steel sent into space by the USSR during the cold war, emitting a very recognisable "Beep... Beep...", demonstrating the ability of humankind to send an object in orbit around the Earth.
But what happened next? 1957 was just 66 years ago and many things have been achieved in the space industry since then. The second satellite was Sputnik 2, launched just one month later carrying the iconic dog Laika, paving the way towards inhabited spacecraft. Launches then followed, year after year, giving access to space to more and more countries. Today, more than 4,500 satellites are orbiting above our heads, always on, providing us with a wide range of services.
Why do we need satellites?
There are various reasons why we need to send objects into space. Some are sent for exploration. They go beyond the orbit of our beloved planet and are equipped with probes and sensors to monitor and study the various parts of our solar system. Others bring us to the Moon and tomorrow to Mars.
But these are the applications we are all aware of. Sci-fi movies and literature are full of these adventures, and people working in the space industry seem to be the new explorers. We are no longer surfing the oceans in the search of unknown land but rather exploring the universe, helping humankind evolve towards greater knowledge.
Yet there is a whole raft of other ways in which space is critical to our daily lives that we are not so aware of. How we connect to each other, physically or virtually is possible thanks to space, be it by providing us with the means to call our loved ones or by guiding us with sophisticated navigation systems. Satellites are also used everyday to safeguard democracy and help populations in case of natural disasters.
When you press the light-switch at home, you expect the bulb to light up instantly. You don't even think about where the electricity comes from, where it was produced and how it was delivered to your socket.
Well, the same goes for connectivity! Think back to just a few decades ago, when you had to choose between your phone and internet connection. Today, we are ever more connected, expecting everything to be instantaneous, seamless and with ever increasing volumes of data.
Most of us live in highly connected and fast paced urban areas with terrestrial connectivity, but this is not representative of the Earth's surface as a whole: only around 1% of land is used for urban development. But when we cross the seas or the oceans, when we go hiking in the mountains or somewhere remote, these are the situations in which we need more than ever to be connected with the rest of the world: with GPS for guidance or with a network to call for help. This is why telecom satellites are essential.
Sometimes we may feel the need to disconnect. But for a one or two-week holiday, maybe three... What if you are not on vacation but are just living in a remote area? A place expanding and developing as never before? Wouldn't you still want to connect with your loved ones, have access to distance learning and benefit from all the knowledge of the internet and continue developing your economy?
Our ways of life have evolved so much and so fast that we could not go back to a world without communications satellites, which would mean overuse and saturation of existing terrestrial networks. There would be no more GPS signals, no more multi-channel broadcast TV. If telecoms and navigation satellites stopped working, this is what our world would look like.
Could satellites really stop working?
The disappearance of satellites from our lives could potentially be caused by things such as a natural disturbance from a geomagnetic storm. Such an event could cause serious damage to our overall communication and data transmission systems as well as power supply networks. This is one of the reasons why satellites like the Airbus-built Solar Orbiter are so important - it is helping us understand how the Sun's electrical and magnetic influence affects the technology we rely on.
Satellites could also suffer from the increase in space debris. As of today, we already have 21,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm floating in space, and we could witness the Kessler effect in action: collisions between objects that would lead to a cascade of collisions, increasing the amount of debris and ultimately rendering all artificial satellites inoperational. This is why we need to learn from what we've done to our oceans and avoid repeating the same mistakes in space: we need an environment where debris is tracked, we need satellites' end-of-life phase to be properly managed and we also need robust space traffic management - just like air traffic management for planes.
So next time you're mountain walking and take out your phone expecting to instantly share a photo of your ascent to the peak, or you withdraw money from a cash machine, think about those invisible 'cables in the sky' that are working away to make it happen!
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