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Global Risks Report warns of space debris

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The 2022 Global Risks Report, recently published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Marsh, the region’s leading insurance broker, and risk advisor, has found that the increasing proliferation of ever-more-affordable low-earth-orbit satellites presents national governments with historical opportunities – and some worrying challenges.

Since 1957, 11,000 satellites have been launched into space, averaging 169 every year but that number is set to increase with the report indicating that up to 70,000 more satellites could enter orbit in the coming decades - several thousand every year. This growth is fueled by scientific progress and the commercialization of space, which is bringing down prices. Smaller, low-cost satellites are now increasing because of lower technology costs and fewer regulatory barriers to entry.

Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites are cheaper and offer a new way to provide ‘digital air’ connectivity to remote and frequently impoverished communities. The benefits of closing this digital divide are admirable and include financial inclusion and better access to education and healthcare services.

A rise in the number of satellites increases the opportunity for collisions and consequently a need for national governments and other space stakeholders to engage in dialogue to build emergency measures.

Ayman El Hout, CEO of Marsh UAE, said; “Humanity stands to gain in so many ways from a responsible, collegiate, inclusive and forward-thinking approach to governing space. Yet few effective governance tools have emerged in recent years and there is a pressing need for an authority to govern satellite launches and servicing, space traffic control, and common enforcement principles. My concern is that without concerted effort to facilitate inclusive growth in space, inequalities in the commercial and geopolitical benefits from space development will only grow."

Marsh also points out that like other sectors where technology is developing faster than regulation, bringing private sector actors into the agreement process could help ensure that such pacts reflect both commercial and technical realities.

It is estimated that there are around 1 million pieces of debris 1 centimeter or larger in orbit. These already pose a serious threat. Last year a piece of debris caused damage to the International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic arm and in 2007 a Chinese anti-satellite missile test destroyed a weather satellite, which exploded into more than 3,500 pieces of junk. Most of the debris is still orbiting, and in November 2021, a part narrowly missed the ISS – but only after a Russian supply spacecraft docked and raised its orbit to avoid the collision.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is produced in collaboration with Marsh McLennan and captures the concerns of more than 150 senior business leaders in the region from across 18 industries.

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