Today, there are over 1,300 satellites in space, used for a variety of tasks that are pivotal to our networked lives.
Space activities include the provision of global positioning information, helping to prevent and mitigate natural and man-made disasters, and connecting the world to broadband services. Also, satellite systems provide the framework for global maritime and aviation distress and safety systems to meet safety of human life requirements.
Consequently, though they are not visible to the naked eye from Earth, satellite systems will play a critical role in supporting the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Space technology’s contribution towards achieving these global development goals was discussed at the recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Contributions of Satellite Communications plenary at the 2016 Global Conference on Space and the Information Society (GLIS). Panellists included Antoine Geissbuhler, Geneva University School of Medicine; Simon Gray, Eutelsat; Christian Heipke, International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS); Jean-Yves Le Gall, Centre National D’Études Spatiales (CNES); and moderator Simonetta di Pippo, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
Due to their global reach, satellites will play a crucial part in connecting the next billion by 2020. “Global Internet connectivity is possibly the biggest future business for the satellite industry, or at least its enabler,” noted Jean-Yves Le Gall.
Further, he explained that “global connectivity is only one of the frontiers of new space which will bring multiple benefits including applications that may be critical for the survival of the human species”. These applications include telemedicine (SDG 3), emergency telecommunications, and climate change mapping (SDG 13).
Satellites can further support the SDGs through Earth observation. Christian Heipke highlighted the role of satellites in mapping global climate trends, noting: “Earth observation is an indispensable tool to reach these Sustainable Development Goals – we are actually heading to daily and real-time monitoring of every corner of the globe.”
This means, among other things, that we are able to document and interpret processes which can help us understand changes in climate and vegetation, predict disease patterns, support disaster and emergency health management and planning relief efforts, manage scarce natural resources such as water, land and forests.
According to Eumetsat estimations, the benefits of weather forecasting based on satellite observation reaches €61.5 billion per year in the European Union only.
In the aftermath of a disaster, satellite-based communication tools are central to support disaster relief and mitigation, and have the unique ability to meet the needs of humanitarian actors. Antoine Geissbuhler noted, “In emergency situations and humanitarian crisis situations, where ground based infrastructure is unavailable, satellite communication provides the only way to connect and offer critical information services.”
The Crisis Connectivity Charter, a collaboration between six UN organizations for disaster relief and nearly 50 NGOs, deploys satellite-based end-to-end communication solutions to affected areas within 48 hours of a disaster. Simon Gray noted, “For the first time in the satellite industry, we now have a coordinated response for supplying disaster communications worldwide.”
The need for global cooperation
However, global coordination is key to unlocking space science and technology’s contributions to achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. As Simonetta di Pippo explained, it is “imperative that the providers of space-based data, products and services work in much closer coordination with intergovernmental bodies and mandated agencies (…) to ensure that this technology and its applications play a central role in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.”