Contribution by: Kudzayi Chipidza who is non-executive director on the IITPSA Board of Directors, member of the IITPSA Social & Ethics Committee, Professional Member of the IITPSA and a Cloud Support Engineer for one of the leading international Cloud Service Providers.
Kudzayi Chipidza discusses the proliferation of Low-Earth Orbit(LEO) satellite internet, highlights what the technology is, its advantages/disadvantages and delves into the sustainability issues.
In our intricately interconnected world, access to the internet has become a fundamental human need. Nearly all facets of our lives are dependent on interconnectivity, be it work, education, entertainment, health services and simple daily communication.
This fact is commonplace in developed societies, but not so much in the developing world. This consistently growing demand for communication solutions in developing communities, particularly the need for internet connectivity, has necessitated innovative mechanisms to service them. One of these is Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite internet.
Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite internet is a type of satellite internet service that utilizes a constellation of satellites orbiting in low Earth orbit, typically at altitudes ranging from about 290 kilometers to 2 000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. LEO satellites are positioned much closer to Earth than traditional geostationary satellites, which orbit at much higher altitudes (approximately 35 786 kilometers).
Upsides of LEO satellite internet
Some of the key upsides of LEO satellite internet include:
Low Latency: significantly reduced latency or signal delay. This is because LEO satellites are closer to Earth, the signals have less distance to travel between user terminal and satellite in orbit, resulting in lower latency compared to their predecessors – geostationary satellites. This makes LEO satellite internet suitable for real-time applications such as online gaming and video conferencing.
Global Coverage: LEO satellite constellations are designed to provide global coverage, reaching remote and underserved areas where traditional terrestrial internet infrastructure may be lacking. This can help bridge the digital divide by offering internet access to people in rural and remote regions.
Mobility: LEO satellite internet is also well-suited for mobile applications, such as providing internet access on ships, aircraft, and vehicles. The low latency and global coverage make it a reliable option for mobile connectivity. Constellations: Several companies have launched or planned LEO satellite constellations, including SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. These constellations aim to provide high-speed internet access to a wide range of users around the world.
While LEO satellite internet offers many advantages, there are inherent challenges and considerations, particularly in the last point. The IITPSA’s Code of Ethics, particularly Clause 1.2 espouses that whilst technological advances enhance the quality of life, they should avoid harm.
Challenges and considerations of LEO satellite internet
LEO satellite internet presents the following downsides:
Satellite Lifecycle and Launch: One of the primary environmental concerns is the environmental cost of producing and launching thousands of satellites. Each launch consumes considerable energy and generates carbon emissions. While these emissions can be mitigated by using reusable rocket technology, the sheer volume of satellite deployments poses a significant challenge. This raises concerns about the carbon footprint associated with satellite production and launches. Currently, there is no collaboration amongst LEO satellite internet providers, so the prospect of communal usage of infrastructure has not been explored. Each organization is poised to out-launch its competitors.
Space Debris: The above described trend obviously leads to the proliferation of space clutter and debris. When LEO satellites reach the end of their operational life, they become space debris, contributing to the growing congestion of objects in space. This debris poses a threat to other satellites and space missions, increasing the risk of collisions and exacerbating the space debris problem.
Light Pollution: LEO satellites reflect sunlight, creating bright streaks of light visible from the ground. This phenomenon, often referred to as “satellite trails” or “mega-constellation light pollution,” has raised concerns among astronomers and stargazers. Light pollution can impact scientific observations, disrupt the circadian rhythms of wildlife, and detract from the enjoyment of the night sky.
Adopting ethical policies and practices
IITPSA Code of Ethics, particularly Clause 2.5, impresses on computing professionals being in a position of trust. As such, they ought to give comprehensive and thorough evaluations of computer systems and their impacts, including analysis of possible risks. Clause 2.7 further emphasises fostering public awareness and understanding of computing, related technologies, and their consequences.
It is important to ensure that the public good is the central concern during all professional computing work. This is the premise of professional leadership principles as contained in Clause 3.1 of the IITPSA Code of Ethics. It implores that computing professionals keep this focus no matter which methodologies or techniques they use in their practice. Furthermore, Clause 1.1 speaks of the significance of promoting environmental sustainability both locally and globally.
To address these socio-environmental concerns, LEO satellite internet providers must adopt policies and practices that are ethical. These can be, but not limited to:
Sustainable Practices: sustainable practices throughout the satellite lifecycle. This includes reducing the carbon footprint of satellite production and launch, implementing responsible satellite disposal methods, and working towards international guidelines for responsible space debris management.
Robust Regulatory Oversight: Governments and international organizations must play a crucial role in regulating the deployment and operation of LEO satellite constellations. Setting clear standards for space debris mitigation and light pollution control can help ensure the long-term sustainability of LEO satellite internet.
Collaboration: Pooling of effort and resources between satellite internet providers, space agencies, and environmental organizations is essential. By working together, stakeholders can develop best practices and guidelines for mitigating the environmental impact of LEO satellite internet while ensuring global connectivity.
In conclusion, LEO satellite internet holds great promise in connecting people worldwide, particularly those in remote and previously underserved regions. However, its environmental impact cannot be ignored. The ethical obligations of this technology have to be met by all stakeholders. To strike the right balance between people and the planet, satellite providers, governments, and environmental organizations must collaborate to implement sustainable practices, regulatory oversight, and responsible space management. In this way, humankind can harness the power of LEO satellite internet while safeguarding the planet’s well-being for future generations.
- IITPSA. (2021). IITPSA Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.iitpsa.org.za/wp-content/ uploads/2022/08/IITPSA-Code-of-Ethics-July-2021-Final.pdf
- Grush, L. (2021). SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet is in beta—but some problems are clear. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/21536083/starlink-satellite-internet-spacex-beta-user-review
- OneWeb. (2021). 2. About OneWeb. Retrieved from https://www.oneweb.world/about-us
- Amazon. (2021). Project Kuiper. Retrieved from https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/innovation-at-amazon/what-is-amazon-project-kuiper
- United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. (2021). Space debris mitigation guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Retrieved from https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/st_space_49E.pdf
- Heidarzadeh, T., & Strelnikova, N. (2020). Evaluation of light pollution at Earth’s exosphere using DigitalGlobe images: A case study of 100 LEO satellites of OneWeb. Journal of Quantitative Spectroscopy and Radiative Transfer, 243, 106692. doi: 10.1016/ j.jqsrt.2019.107331