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Internet heads to outer space, garbage collectors in tow

Raja Murthy |

Unsung garbage collectors are going extraterrestrial, with the Internet going extraterrestrial – as with Elon Musk’s SpaceX getting U.S governmental Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for broadband services using 4,425 satellites. And the Satellite Era dawns with our deepening dependence on the Internet.

“This is the first approval of a US-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” said the FCC media release on March 29. Similar applications for constellations of thousands of satellites await FCC approval.

Telecom companies OneWeb, Space Norway and Telesat already have FCC license to sell satellite technology based broadband services in the USA.

In the inevitability of change, the mundane evolution of our species is heading to space, with cheaper satellites being the new confetti of human technology orbiting between Earth and the stars.

Musk’s hopes for a next-generation global satellite Internet business includes hopes for it to fund building his dream city on planet Mars. But his passage to the planets is paved with litter.

Global satellite Internet projects such as Musk’s Starlink, if and when they become reality, will ensure tens of thousands of satellites rapidly adding to over 500,000 bits of debris already floating outside Earth.

I grew up in time when chronicles of our days were recorded on the pen, paper and the typewriter. But now for hundreds of millions like me in the 21st century, livelihood work stops if the Internet connection drops. And the Internet service provider is rocketing into space with satellites.

The Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists counts nearly 1,800 operational satellites, with the US owning 803, China’s 204, 103 Russian and India with 45 operational satellites. But over 3,000 damaged or dead satellites hover in an extraterrestrial graveyard, like orbiting ghosts threatening the safety of space missions, if not people on Earth.

On April 2, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off with the world’s pioneering extraterrestrial garbage collector: the European Commission-funded and British-made ‘RemoveDEBRIS’ satellite, the first practical effort to clean up space debris.

The space litter collector reflects increasing activity outside Earth. And space litter increases with dead or damaged satellites like China’s Tiangong-1 and India’s GSAT-6A past week – and with thousands of small satellites launched for faster, cheaper Internet connectivity.

“The Internet is the most powerful drug ever created by the human race,” Christopher Stott, a chief executive officer of satellite industry service provider ManSat, emailed me, “the only thing both people and machines want more of, faster, cheaper all of the time.”

The Internet-dependent day at work, the omnipresent smartphone, the addictive social media fixation of our times, uncounted waking hours of life online, all boil down to the now-taken-for-granted Internet connection…for increasing millions, work stops if the Internet connection drops, and the peddler providing the daily online fix is heading to outer space.

“No tsunamis, no earthquakes, no fires in space,” Stott said of stability of the Internet from outer space, in contrast to terrestrial disruptions even without disasters and even with 4G connections. “Satellites today and tomorrow will continue to provide the backbone of communications for the whole human race working with terrestrial fibre and mobile”.

Based in the beautiful Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, Stott co-founded ‘Geeks without Frontiers’ to use the Internet for social development, particularly for 4.2 billion people worldwide without an Internet connection. But others point out more urgent priorities for those disadvantaged billions, such as water, nutrition, shelter. Yet the Internet empowers the global community to share, and generate resources to solve problems like never before in history, like enabling billions of dollars in generous online giving.

Scott expects new 5G and other systems rolling out much faster with economical use of satellite technology. Every new form of global communications systems will be satellite-dependent. Our technological future is with satellites, en route to distant galaxies billions of light years away.

Three of the world’s major space powers in Asia – China, Japan and India – have busy space programmes paving a pathway to the stars, and satellites are the cobblestones in this pathway to maybe advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, far faraway. And civilizations need garbage collectors.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in February 2017 placing a record 104 satellites in a single mission not only enhanced its reputation as world leader in cost-effective innovation – India’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission cost $75 million, one-tenth of NASA’s MAVEN Mars mission – but ISRO’s record launch also signaled surge of the Satellite Era.

Since the launch of Russia’s Sputnik in 1957 inspired a generation of space scientists, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has recorded 8,090 objects launched into outer space. In the dawning Satellite Era, just one satellite communication project from Musk’s SpaceX in year 2018 needs launching 4,425 satellites.

Three days after takeoff from Cape Canaveral on April 2, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket reached the International Space Station with the first satellite extraterrestrial garbage collector ‘RemoveDebris’ , to start its mission to remove 7,600 tonnes of space junk.

And so we acknowledge with gratitude the humble garbage collector becoming as necessary outside Earth as on it, and becoming the unlikely banner of an Internet-driven technological evolution.


The writer is a senior, Mumbai-based journalist.