The rising need for connectivity demands sustainably focused innovation

The satellite connectivity will account for more than 80% of the region’s revenue opportunities, and the MEA region overall will exceed $150bn in cumulative revenues between 2021 to 2031.

By Rhys Morgan, Intelsat’s Vice President and General Manager, EMEA Media and Networks Sales.

Saudi Arabia is fast meeting the objectives set by the Vision 2030 programmes, and digitisation is at the heart of the transformation. Committed to futureproofing the economy and enhancing citizens’ lives, Saudi Arabia ranked second among the G20 members and fourth globally in the preparedness of digital systems, according to a report published by the International Telecommunication Union. Home to 36.31m internet users, and with an internet penetration of 99.0%, the digital divide in Saudi is fast bridging thanks to a robust regulatory framework, commitment to innovation and investment in technology.

Integrated connectivity is leading the way, catalysing social and economic growth in Saudi Arabia. Fast becoming a defining feature of modern life, connectivity plays a critical role in the safe and efficient implementation of the many developments shaping the Kingdom’s plans. To date, autonomous vehicles, smart cities, telecommunications, and instant payments are a few of the innovations fuelling a high reliance on satellite connectivity. Overall, satellite connectivity will account for more than 80% of the region’s revenue opportunities, and the MEA region overall will exceed $150bn in cumulative revenues between 2021 to 2031. The public sector continues to spearhead the Public Investment Fund (PIF) allocating $2.1bn to its space programme in 2020, a milestone moment for their ambitions in this industry.

From the onset, Saudi Arabia has not only showed a commitment to meeting the demand for growth but doing so sustainably. A country built on purpose, their commitment to drive global sustainability is unprecedented and is demonstrated through the investment in, and launch of, Saudi Green Initiative, Environmental fund, Green Riyadh project and the National Environmental Strategy. Commitment is evident by the public sector addressing the entire value chain of the space ecosystem, including space exploration, satellite manufacturing and communications. To further cement Saudi’s pledge to the space economy, the Kingdom signed the Artemis Accords on the 14th of July 2022 and subsequently introduced the Saudi Space Accelerator program in 2022. The program supports startups and entrepreneurs in developing innovative space solutions within the Kingdom while simplifying knowledge transfer, technology, and training.

Increased need and reliance amplify saturation and ultimately risk. Continuous and rapid growth also means there is a risk of congestion and an increasing need to stay abreast of sustaining a healthy environment in space. With almost 6,800 active satellites orbiting the planet and around 2,810 inactive satellites in space it is prudent and necessary to mitigate and manage debris generation as space gets more crowded.

The amount of space debris orbiting Earth today totals around 9,000 tonnes with more than 100 million pieces at a size of one millimetre or larger according to NASA’s latest report. This debris consists of man-made technologies from active satellites to rocket parts and other space junk. There are approximately 70-90 satellites launched into orbit per year and a consequence of the rising object count could deem catastrophic.

Satellite life extension technology presents a host of possibilities, that could contribute to the reduction of the number of satellites in orbit. Satellites are often working as expected 15 years after launch and beyond the cost savings and operational continuity, there are rewards to be reaped by way of extending their functional life. In 2020, history was made when Intelsat’s 901 (IS-901) satellite docked with Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), the first time two commercial spacecraft have docked whilst in orbit. This happened again in 2021 when Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 docked with Intelsat’s 10-02, extending the life expectancy of both satellites by five years.

Collaborative efforts across the sector will be key in unlocking the full potential of sustainable satellite operations. Most recently, Intelsat ordered a Mission Extension Pod (MEP) from Northrop Grumman Corporation’s SpaceLogistics. The MEP “jet pack” will be installed by SpaceLogistics’ mission robotic vehicle (MRV) on an Intelsat satellite operating in geosynchronous orbit. The mission will ensure the continuity of satellite service for at least six years beginning in 2026.

While the contribution of innovative, scalable, and adaptable connectivity continues to drive growth and efficiency in multiple priority sectors, there is a pertinent need to recognise that the sustainability conversation is as relevant in space as it is on Earth. Climate-conscious actions for space must be front of mind when vying for solutions on the ground. Advancing the digital infrastructure in the sky impacts space-for-earth and space-for-space economies respectively, catalysing collaboration between policymakers, service providers and the ecosystem as a whole for mitigating impact. Satellite servicing, decommissioning and disposal continue to contribute positively, however, there is room for the development of new solutions.

On earth, the pace by which we need to meet the ever-growing demands of today’s heavily connected world shows no sign of relenting. Our collective commitment to sustainability in space must demonstrate equivocal dedication to safeguarding operations and impact, in the sky.