Use the future to build the present
Earth Orbit
Comment
Stakeholder Type
,
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy

Sub-Field:

3.4.1Earth Orbit

From low-Earth orbit, the space above an altitude of 160 km, out to geostationary orbit just less than 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface, Earth orbit is a resource for communication, observation and exploration.

Since the launch of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, there are now over 7,000 individual satellites in orbit around Earth13. The almost 300 billion USD satellite economy includes telecommunications and internet infrastructure, the Global Positioning Service, Earth observation capabilities, national security satellites and more. Decreasing launch costs have enabled a variety of industries to benefit from satellite technologies to drive innovation and efficiency in their products and services. Satellite data improves prediction of and recovery from hazards and disasters around the world, as well as providing important insights into ecosystems, land use, the effects of climate change, deforestation and more, enabling smarter and more sustainable policy choices.

In 2020, almost 1,300 satellites were launched, the most ever in a year. By the end of April in 2021, 66 per cent of 2020's total had already been launched.14 Satellites have functional lifetimes of around 5-15 years. Space debris, or any human-made object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves a useful function, impacts the safety of both robotic and crewed commercial, military and exploration spacecraft. Existing space treaties do not address space debris explicitly; there is neither a legal obligation to remove the debris, nor to bear the cost for its removal.15

Beyond the commercial satellite industry, another Earth orbit resource is energy from the Sun. While both China and Japan have explored the possibility of harvesting solar power in low-Earth orbit and beaming it back to Earth as a microwave or laser beam16, there's little indication that the lossy and risky business of space-based solar power will ever be cost-effective compared with energy generation on Earth.

Last but not least, the era of commercialisation of Earth orbit by space tourism has arrived. SpaceX became the first private company to take people into orbit, and now routinely delivers astronauts to the International Space Station. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are on the verge of operating commercial space enterprises focused on tourism. For these and other operators, reducing the cost of access to space is still a main goal. Safety is critical too: the way the industry deals with the first accidents involving the commercial space travel sector will be foundational for this business. Nevertheless, people who have visited space are set to become increasingly common.17

Future Horizons:

×××

5-yearhorizon

Big data

A new generation of remote sensing satellites provide autonomous, real-time monitoring of Earth’s polar regions in unprecedented detail leading to significantly improved climate models.

Big data from remote sensing Copernicus Sentinel satellites begin to offer a fine-grained understanding of how our oceans, winds and biosphere are changing.18

Private communications constellations provide broadband capability across the world, allowing more widespread and capable observation across the planet.

The dramatic increase in low-Earth orbit satellite constellations provides momentum for international agreement on standards for managing orbital behaviour.

The growth of space tourism accelerates the formation of international forums in which clear legal frameworks for this activity are discussed.

10-yearhorizon

Space debris

Vast numbers of satellites launched in the 2020s are now defunct, while new fleets are launched continuously. Communication, navigation, surveillance, research and exploration, and indeed the entire global digital economy, is threatened by increasing prevalence of collisions in Earth orbit.

Efforts are made towards a collaborative and international approach to space, however self-interest and short-term, profit-driven decision making abounds. The need for international agreement on standards for managing orbital behaviour is urgent.

25-yearhorizon

Commercial versus environmental

Massive data streams from orbiting constellations provide real-time tracking of weather, traffic and emissions along with continuous observations of the amount of energy the Earth absorbs from the Sun versus how much it radiates. Real-time tracking makes many international activities transparent, providing important ground truth data for climate change negotiations, for carbon trading and for circular economics.

China begins building zero carbon, solar energy-harvesting stations in low-Earth orbit.19 These stations use microwaves to beam the sun’s energy to the ground, but the move creates international outrage because the microwave beams can also be used as weapons. The vagaries of intentional space law regarding weapons come under intense scrutiny.

However, all low-Earth orbit activities could be at risk. If today’s operational practises remain unchanged, with almost no space objects performing end-of-life manoeuvres and with explosions continuing to occur, this leads to a progressive, uncontrolled increase of object numbers, with collisions becoming the primary debris source within less than 50 years.20

The Kessler effect21 is a theoretical scenario in which the density of space debris in low-Earth orbit is high enough that collisions between objects cause collision cascades, rendering space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbits near impossible for generations to come.

Earth Orbit - Anticipation Scores

How the experts see this field in terms of the expected time to maturity, transformational effect across science and industries, current state of awareness among stakeholders and its possible impact on people, society and the planet. See methodology for more information.

GESDA Best Reads and Key Resources