Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

July 17, 2019

In a few days, we mark the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon. But a more significant anniversary is 13 December 2022 – when it will be 50 years since the last man on the moon (Gene Cernan). Indeed, since the Apollo 17 mission, humanity has not ventured further than low Earth orbit.

So, manned spaceflight: been there, done that, let’s not go again. Rather, let’s pay more attention to the hugely more consequential business of unmanned spaceflight and satellite technology.

There’s important stuff happening over your head right now – and you need to know about it.

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For instance, that irrepressible scamp Elon Musk has been up to his tricks again. This time he’s only gone and launched a ‘train’ of 60 satellites into space – and obtained the authorisation to launch thousands more. Indeed, the plan is that the SpaceX Starlink fleet will consist of nearly 12,000 satellites with the objective of providing space-based internet services anywhere on Earth.

This would be of great benefit to unconnected parts of the world. However, it’s widely reported that astronomers are not happy – believing that Starlink and other satellite ‘constellations’ will interfere with their observations of the night sky.

A report for Forbes by Jonathan O’Callaghan conveys their mounting alarm:

“SpaceX is one of nine companies known to be working on global space internet, and already concerns have been raised about space junk. Now astronomers too are worried about what the future may hold.

“‘The potential tragedy of a mega-constellation like Starlink is that for the rest of humanity it changes how the night sky looks,’ says Ronald Drimmel from the Turin Astrophysical Observatory in Italy. ‘Starlink, and other mega constellations, would ruin the sky for everyone on the planet.’”

But while the proliferation of satellites may make it harder for us to look up, they’ll make it easier for us to look down.

There’s nothing new about satellite imagery, of course. It’s been around for decades. However, according to Christopher Beam in MIT Technology Review, the intensity of space-based surveillance is about to hit a whole new level:

“Every year, commercially available satellite images are becoming sharper and taken more frequently. In 2008, there were 150 Earth observation satellites in orbit; by now there are 768…

“Maxar, formerly DigitalGlobe, which launched the first commercial Earth observation satellite in 1997, is building a constellation that will be able to revisit spots 15 times a day. BlackSky Global promises to revisit most major cities up to 70 times a day.”

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It’s not only the frequency of coverage that’s going to increase, but also the detail of the images:

“Commercial satellite imagery is currently in a sweet spot: powerful enough to see a car, but not enough to tell the make and model; collected frequently enough for a farmer to keep tabs on crops’ health, but not so often that people could track the comings and goings of a neighbor. This anonymity is deliberate. US federal regulations limit images taken by commercial satellites to a resolution of 25 centimeters, or about the length of a man’s shoe.”

With so many more satellites in space owned by interests all over the world, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the American and other western governments to restrict the availability of espionage-grade satellite images.

Conceivably, every location on Earth will be photographed at high resolution, many times a day – and not just in the visible part of the spectrum, but also other wavelengths capable of gathering other kinds of data – heat signatures, for instance. AI-powered advances in image analysis will mean that ever-greater levels of intelligence can be derived from what the eyes in the sky see of our daily lives.

Worried yet? You should be.

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Of course, there are privacy concerns surrounding other surveillance technologies – CCTV and, more lately, drones. However, as Beam reminds us, these are subject to regulation by sovereign states. Space, however – the high frontier – is pretty much a free for all:

“The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967 by the US, the Soviet Union, and dozens of UN member states, gives all states free access to space, and subsequent agreements on remote sensing have enshrined the principle of ‘open skies.’”

My guess is that we’ll respond to the threat of space-based surveillance with ground-based counter- surveillance. Beam paints a scenario in which satellite imagery is used to analyse patterns of light spilling out from windows, from which one could work out which buildings are most likely to be unoccupied at any particular time. Vehicle movement analysis could yield the same information – which would, of course, be of great interest to burglars. In all likelihood, criminals and terrorists will soon know a great more about our daily routines than they do now.

So what do we do about it? The obvious answer is to build-out CCTV and drone networks so that the authorities charged with our protection know more about what the bad guys are up to than the bad guys know about us. Burglary, for instance, would be rendered unviable if, from the moment of a break-in, the burglars were inescapably captured on camera – all the way from our houses to their houses.

It’ll be some time before satellites are sufficiently numerous and powerful to provide continuous real-time video coverage of the Earth. However, in particular locations, this is already possible using ground and air-based technologies. Expect the threat from space to accelerate the spread of defensive surveillance across entire cities, regions and nations.

Let’s hope those in charge have our best interests at heart.