Over the next 10 years, the number of active satellites in orbit is set to multiply, spurred by the rise in global services like Earth observation, internet connectivity and voice communications. However, an increase in debris in space, in particular in lower orbits is putting these satellite operations at risk of collision, says a new report from Swiss Re which explores the implications for collision risk in low Earth orbits (LEO).
Increase in space operations and also debris
Orbital debris makes up over 90% of the tracked objects orbiting the Earth today. The catalogued orbital population has grown by 19% since 2011 to around 19,000 objects, with the greatest increases among operational payloads and fragmentation debris, said the report, New Space, New Dimensions, New Challenges, How Satellite Constellations Impact Space Risk.
Due to rapid advances in technology and developments in manufacturing capability, many new private sector players are now leading space operations in LEO, with UN figures showing that the private sector leads 70% of space activity.
Satellite constellations, especially in LEO, could cause the greatest disruption to space traffic and how space is used. These constellations – with up to hundreds or thousands of satellites working together – differ from single satellites in that they serve to offer complete spatial coverage across the Earth at a high revisiting rate.
Increase in risk for insurers
In a LEO constellation with multiple satellites orbiting the Earth multiple times a day, collision risk is a significant consideration for insurers.
“Given the heightened probability of debris impact in LEO, insureds should give consideration to damage to their satellites from debris impact,” said Swiss Re.
The report shares details on the current ambiguity in satellite anomaly and failure attribution, debris population characterisation and lethality from debris impacts. Drawing on expertise from the technical, legal and insurance disciplines, it also examines legal challenges such as how liability may be attributed in case of collision and examines how the insurance industry is responding to the needs of increasingly complex satellite operations.
Jan Schmidt, Head Space at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, says: "With more and more constellations being deployed in LEO, the insurance industry is facing new challenges. Typically, insurers have provided insurance products that respond to total loss or damage to large, high-value communications satellites in geostationary orbit. Today we are seeing increased demand for products offering similar financial protection but for constellations made up of hundreds or even thousands of satellites operating in LEO."
To date, issues of collision avoidance, situational awareness and deorbiting of decommissioned satellites have been in the background of insurers’ overall risk assessment for both Geostationary orbit (GEO) and LEO insurance programmes. In the future, the probability and consequence of collision are likely to become primary considerations when underwriting this highly specialised class of business, noted Swiss Re.
The full report can be found here.