The Importance of Satellites to Life on Earth

Speakers: Jessica West Wesley Wark Aaron Shull

January 29, 2023

The Importance of Satellites to Life on Earth

Series Overview - CIGI Thumbnail

The Importance of Satellites to Life on Earth

Jessica West Wesley Wark Aaron Shull

This video is part of Cybersecurity and Outer Space, an essay series that explores space governance through three themes: space security and risk, international governance challenges, and global perspectives and the pursuit of inclusivity.

Space-based satellite equipment is critically important for daily life on Earth. It enables real-time communications; timing for banking and stock market transactions; navigation and positioning; and surface monitoring for weather predictions, including climate change impacts such as rising ocean temperatures or flooding, and imagery. The private sector uses space systems for commercial activities, data transfers, and providing services to customers such as satellite TV and internet access. Nations use space systems for national security, and militaries use space systems for secure communications and satellite imagery for reconnaissance and strategic planning.

Increasingly, satellite systems are connected to the internet for both satellite command and control and to receive and relay data across space networks. Cyberspace relies on space equipment just as it does on Earth-based hardware. During the Cold War, the major powers tested anti-satellite weapons that involved physically attacking and destroying an enemy’s satellite. These types of attacks create space debris, threatening other objects in space, and are direct forms of aggression between states. The cyber element of space-based systems opens new avenues for potential attacks on space equipment that do not create physical hazards in space, and because of the online nature of these threats, they are difficult to detect and determine their origin. Cyberwarfare often falls below the threshold of full-scale war and enables many actors to participate, including non-state actors, hacktivists and terrorists, all of which increases distrust among nations and heightens geopolitical tensions.

In this video, the editors of the CIGI essay series Cybersecurity and Outer Space explain the importance of space systems for civilian and military activities, the changing landscape marked by the increase in private sector space activity and the complexity of updating space governance to reflect this changed landscape. The editors are Jessica West, CIGI senior fellow and senior researcher at Project Ploughshares; Wesley Wark, CIGI fellow and former member of the prime minister of Canada’s Advisory Council on National Security; and Aaron Shull, CIGI managing director and general counsel.

The essay series explores three themes: space security and risk, international governance challenges, and global perspectives and inclusivity, with the view that international space law, norms and rules need to be strengthened and further defined to address the changing space environment, which includes the private sector and cyber-related activities in space. Without addressing these important governance issues, we risk warfare spilling into space and making the space systems that all of humanity relies on unusable for future generations.

Jessica West: When we think about space and we think about satellites and our connections to satellites on a daily basis, there is a few things that come to mind immediately: GPS, cellphone usage and satellite TV. Those are sort of iconic uses of space. But when we’re talking about space and what we get from it, it’s really all about communication and data. And those are deeply integrated in almost everything else that we do, whether we see the connections or not.

Wesley Wark: They’re increasingly important for timekeeping around sensitive activities like banking transactions.

Aaron Shull: We also use it for reconnaissance. We use it for weather forecasting.

Jessica West: We use satellites to measure and monitor greenhouse gases on Earth.

Wesley Wark: And they are particularly impactful in terms of providing internet connectivity to rural and remote communities where it’s very difficult, for example, to lay fibre-optic cable or create networks otherwise.

Jessica West: We now have the ability to photograph every part of Earth, every single day. And the amount of information that you can glean from that and the changes that you can see in near real time is absolutely phenomenal.

Now, outer space is fundamental to human life on Earth, but when it comes to the military, I don’t think they can do anything without the use of space. And it’s all the way from high-level capabilities, such as command and control over nuclear weapons, all the way down to being able to communicate and navigate an individual soldier on the field.

Wesley Wark: And what’s made a big change, I think, recently, is that that capacity to have satellites in orbit contributing that kind of information used to be the monopoly of a handful of states.

Aaron Shull: The new entrants to space are principally private sector actors, and this is something that’s fundamentally different. Previously, space was the domain of states. Now, it’s a multistakeholder environment made up of a number of actors.

Jessica West: Today, outer space is overwhelmingly civil and especially commercial, but even many of those commercial capabilities are deeply embedded and integrated with military uses. Militaries also use commercial satellites for essential functions.

Wesley Wark: And what you see then is an intersection between very often private sector satellite companies and, you know, space security providers and governments where they share that capability. And we’ve seen this a lot with regard to the Ukraine war, for example.


Alex Marquardt: According to SpaceX, there are around 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine, and they’ve been vital for soldiers’ communication, flying drones and artillery targeting.

Source: CNN YouTube Channel October 14, 2022

Wesley Wark: If we believe, as I think we must, that space-based systems are vital pieces of critical infrastructure, they’re important to us all, then we have to be concerned about ways in which they can be interfered with.

Jessica West: Satellites are incredibly vulnerable to many different types of threats.

Aaron Shull: The first is kinetic. So, think about a ground-based asset targeting one in space. The clearest example is an ASAT, or a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile. The issue with these is that they create a ton of additional debris in outer space.


Ned Price: The Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites.

Source: U.S. Department of State YouTube Channel November 15, 2021


Savannah Guthrie: The International Space Station had to do some defensive driving this week to avoid a potential collision with a piece of Russian satellite debris.

Source: TODAY YouTube Channel October 26, 2022


Chuck Todd: During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union both demonstrated their ability to blow up satellites. By how? Blowing up satellites. China and India? They’re repeating these experiments with their own satellites.

Source: NBC News YouTube Channel November 23, 2021

Jessica West: And you can have quickly a cascading effect of pollution that really makes some parts of outer space unusable.

Aaron Shull: There’s no secrets. If a kinetic attack is launched from Earth, chances are we know who did it. You’re actively taking down another state’s satellites using a kinetic strike.

Jessica West: No one has an interest in a shooting war in space that would create massive clouds of debris that could in turn harm everyone’s satellites, including those of the states that engaged in such shooting. There are also non-kinetic or non-physical ways of interfering with space systems that take advantage of their electronic and digital vulnerabilities.


Tom Costello: Ukrainians unable to access GPS because it’s been jammed locally on the ground.

Gen. David Thompson: That’s right. Ukrainians may not be able to use GPS because there are jammers around that prevent them from receiving and using the signal effectively.

Source: NBC News YouTube Channel April 11, 2022

Wesley Wark: The easiest and most effective way to interfere with satellite systems is not to knock them out of the sky, but to disable their capabilities and functioning through cyberattacks.

Jessica West: In this scenario, cyber is appealing. It’s effective. It can disrupt the ability to use a satellite without polluting outer space in a way that is hard to detect sometimes and very difficult to attribute, so you can deny who the actor is. And it can be temporary and reversible, so it’s seen in some ways as less threatening, less damaging, and it’s something that can also lurk and take its time before it’s put to use.

Wesley Wark: If you get a minor denial of service attack on a satellite system, well, that’s probably not worth an escalatory response. If you’ve got a major attack on a system that was providing vital communications or vital intelligence gathering, that would be an entirely different thing.

Jessica West: And so, even something small like a cyberattack could have rippling effects not only on conflict escalation dynamics, but also on the well-being of humans on Earth.


Gen. Stephen Whiting: We don’t want there to be a war in space. We want all of humanity to continue to use all the benefits of space for all of our good. But if others choose to start a war there, we’ll be ready.

Source: NBC News YouTube Channel March 30, 2022


Zhao Lijian (voice translation dub): The United States repeatedly claims to have its own so-called concept of responsible conduct in outer space, but it ignores its international treaty obligations concerning outer space.

Source: CNN Website December 28, 2021

Aaron Shull: I hope it’s not inevitable that geopolitics spills into outer space, but that’s certainly the course that we’re on. The reason I hope we don’t end up getting there is because space is common heritage of humankind. If there was one opportunity for us to work together, this would be it.

Wesley Wark: Once upon a time when the space race was a much simpler thing during the Cold War, there were pretty agreed red lines. But we’ve lost that sense of where these red lines should be in this new age of the exploitation of space.

Aaron Shull: And at some point, we might very well find out where a red line is by accident.

Jessica West: If we don’t have governance, if we don’t cooperate on rules and coordinate our uses, space could become unusable. We could create a mess of pollution to the point where we can’t use outer space, not just today, but future generations. That’s a problem; that’s a very real concern. We could congest it to the point that it’s hard for newcomers to make use and access of it. That’s ethically wrong and problematic and, you know, goes against the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty — not even the spirit, the letters that we agreed to over 50 years ago. We could have conflict over resources in the future if we have multiple states going to the moon, for example, and trying to make use of resources there to help facilitate further space exploration.

Aaron Shull: So, it used to be state to state, government to government. It was clear who was in the room, and it was clear who you were negotiating with. But now there’s a multiplicity of actors, not least of which is the private sector that have a stake in the game, too. And so, creating a rule structure and a multistakeholder environment is not just about governments — it’s actually about governance.

Jessica West: We do have governance. We have laws, but there’s gaps, and there’s certainly a need to update, refine, fill in the details of our governance framework in outer space so that it can respond to the ways that our uses of space are changing to new actors and to new activities.

Wesley Wark: The overall intention, I think, is to recognize that it’s in everybody’s interest, whether you’re a private sector actor or you’re a state actor, to allow all of us to profit from the extraordinary capabilities that space-based systems give us.

Jessica West: We don’t want conflict, and we certainly don’t want a future without space.

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