Eyes In the Sky: How’s Our Vision?

Satellites

We saw an article recently that had us thinking about satellites.  There are three NASA satellites in particular that are both highly valuable and likely to stop operating in the next few years. And apparently, there are no direct replacements either planned or in operation for these specific orbiters. 

That got us thinking about satellites more generally.  Because of the increasing risk of natural and other disasters, we wondered about the role of satellites in monitoring and managing emergency situations.  And it turns out that satellites are really important. Whether tracking severe weather events, identifying wildfires, studying floods or coordinating rescue operations, satellites are critical for helping emergency managers save lives and mitigate and recover from damage.

And because these three satellites are going offline, we wondered what other risks satellites face in the future and whether we can count on their continued contribution to emergency management and public safety. It turns out that there are many risks that satellites face. 

Unseen Sentinels

Satellites orbiting Earth are the unsung heroes of disaster management. They provide a global view and real-time data that are indispensable for emergency responders. When terrestrial systems fail, satellites become the backbone of communication, offering a reliable means to assess situations and coordinate efforts.

Real-Time Response and Recovery

During emergencies, every second counts. Satellite imagery and communications enable rapid assessment of affected areas, helping to direct resources where they are needed most. They also play a crucial role in the aftermath of disasters, supporting recovery efforts by monitoring changes and guiding rebuilding initiatives.

Predictive Power

Beyond immediate response, satellites contribute to disaster preparedness. They monitor environmental conditions and provide data that can predict potential threats like hurricanes and tsunamis. This predictive power allows for early warnings and proactive measures, saving countless lives and properties.

But despite their incredible value, satellites are both vulnerable and potential targets.  

The list of vulnerabilities is pretty scary: Cyberattacks, space weather, meteorite collisions, and anti-satellite weapons all pose significant risks.  And because satellites are isolated in the sky, their isolation and reliance on wireless communications expose them to threats such as signal jamming, spoofing, and data interception

And our adversaries understand the value and vulnerability of satellites to the US.  The Russions, for example, have developed weapons meant specifically for satellites.  And, according to a recent article in the NYTimes, they’re even willing to detonate bombs in space that might take out their own satellites as collateral damage, because they understand that the US and the West more generally, is more dependent on this technology than they are. 

The point here is that emergency managers should have multiple and redundant sources of communication and intelligence, and plan – because that’s what emergency management does – for the possibility that in an emergency, the resources provided by satellite communications may not be available.

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