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Space Dependence: a need for better communication

Julia C. Balm

Research Associate, Freeman Air and Space Institute

09 February 2024

Space is one of the United Kingdom’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) sectors. During a cost-of-living crisis in the UK, investing in and prioritising space in government budgets and strategies may appear excessive. Yet, we absolutely depend on space, and it is crucial to better communicate space applications and dependencies. This will help mitigate risks and reduce the gradual degradation of technologies that we increasingly take for granted.

Space systems include sensors, payloads, critical technologies, signals, data, and vehicles. Whether it be running energy grids, crisis management, humanitarian operations, climate monitoring, telecommunications networks, command and control, or the coordination of supply chains, infrastructure is interdependent on space systems and this dependency is projected to grow. There are approximately 9,000 satellites in orbit in 2024. A 2020 study predicts this number to reach anywhere between 60,000 to100,000 by 2030. Any disruption in space services would have a cascading effect. As we consider current dependencies on space systems and prepare for them to continue growing, it is important to shed light on the many ways that space is critical infrastructure in our modern world.

More conversations about space dependence will strengthen attempts to communicate the importance of keeping momentum in space investments and strategic coherence. If space systems fail simultaneously, there will be substantial impacts on everyday life across many sectors.

Dependencies on space systems are not always obvious. For example, space supports the financial sector in various ways. One way is in fostering the transition into a green and sustainable future: satellite technology can help verify the accountability of companies’ to their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) strategies using remote imagery technologies and space-based sensing. Increasing evidence suggests that investors are paying greater attention to ESG scores, factoring into mergers and acquisitions and divestitures more substantially. Another way our financial systems depend on space is through timestamps. They are critical to banking, fintech, and the global financial market. Without timestamps, the financial system would collapse within a few hours. Aside from the financial system’s collapse, power grids reliant on synchronisation would also breakdown. We need to communicate this risk of relying on sole satellite time sources in the financial sector more widely.

The agriculture industry also exhibits a rising dependency on space systems. Global Positioning System (GPS) allows farmers to work in low visibility conditions and it supports farm planning, field and yield mapping, soil sampling, and tractor guidance. A digital revolution has occurred in the farming industry. Real-time decision making, at a local farm level and on a global supply chain scale, depends on daily satellite imagery. Data from 2022 reveals that the agricultural area totals 69% of UK land with 191,000 farm holdings. Productivity in UK agriculture has grown by 67% since 1973 due to a number of variables, including more effective usage of space systems data.

Another area worth considering is the role of space technologies in better understanding climate change. More than 50% of essential climate variables can only be measured from space. Satellites monitor greenhouse gas emissions, measure weather patterns, track water levels, and calibrate solar radiance measurements. Satellites are the only means of routinely monitoring both poles and changes in ice cover. By combining satellite data acquired across 200,000 mountain glaciers, a recent study revealed that Earth lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994-2017. This ice loss raises sea levels, endangers ecosystems and wildlife, and reduces Earth’s ability to reflect solar radiation into space. The data collected by these space systems helps support policy making aimed at halting climate change. The UK Space Agency has continually supported investments in this area, including investing in a new pathfinder satellite that will monitor thermal emissions and map areas of climate-change risks.

Archaeologists also use satellite imagery and remote sensing. Remote sensing helps archaeologists and scientists discern environmental features which might otherwise not be visible to the naked eye. Infrared satellite imagery can detect differences in soil textures, making it useful to detect subtle geological differences in archaeological sites. Remote sensing is also especially helpful when conflict zones may be too dangerous to conduct field work. The degradation of heritage sites in conflicts impedes researching and safeguarding historical sites. Satellite imagery maps real time destructions today, as seen recently with how the UN is using before and after images to assess Russia’s impact on architecture, art, and historic buildings in its war on Ukraine. We have grown dependent on our bird's eye view. Any loss of eyes or ears will not only degrade our efficacy and reconnaissance, but it will also undermine our ability to understand this changing planet and the impact we have on it.

The United States focuses on ensuringa day without space’ never happens through hosting various videos, risk mitigating events, and discussions. The German Space Agency launched a video animation conveying the impact of a 'a day without space' in 2021. A similar agenda conveying the gravity of a single lost day has yet to surface in the UK.

A recent effort is seen with the UK Space Command’s ‘keeping space safe, secure, and sustainable’ video that expressed the need for greater space security and defence. Likewise, the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology publication of ‘The Case for Space’ in July 2023 argued how government intervention and investment in the space sector supports long term government objectives. The most profound effort to communicate this dependence was the 2018 Satellite-derived Time and Position report. Informally referred to as the Blackett Report, it recognised that an awareness of UK dependence on global navigation systems (GNSS) was lagging behind, with a single point of failure affecting multiple services and applications. This report also attempted to quantify the cost of a GNSS disruption to the UK economy, arriving at an estimated £5.2 billion for a 5-day disruption. This is arguably the most eye-opening report on UK space dependence to date. While these are all steps in the right direction, they cannot be a finish line to a better communications strategy.

The UK government must do much more to convey the realities of a space Achilles’ heel if all space services are rendered inoperable. There must be greater prioritisation on widening public awareness and increasing outreach activities on the increasing and varied dependencies on space systems. It is worthwhile to consider the benefits of developing measurement tools to gauge public awareness of space services at a national, regional, and institutional level.

In just these few examples, it should be clear how reliant the modern world is on space assets. Dependence on space is not just a defence problem but rather a whole of society problem. It is inevitable that over periods of time and across changing contexts, government priorities shift. But that which supports our modern world, the technology underpinning the world as we know it, must not change. There must be a concerted effort to ensure our dependence on space systems is not a chink in the armour. While dependencies on space are growing, it makes little sense to lose momentum in strategic calibration.

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Julia Balm

Julia Balm

Research Associate

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