This past April, my wife, several McGill University colleagues and I embarked on a safari in a remote area of Jabalpur, Nepal. While “on board” an elephant, I was suddenly drawn by a tiny hut made of bamboo and hay. What caught my eye was the television dish antenna installed beside the “wall” of this simple abode of illiterate people with meagre economic means.
A similarly captivating moment took place in Algiers, Algeria, in April 2006. Many rooftops and several balconies of high-rise apartments were dotted with numerous white television dishes.
Here, in North America, we have access to hundreds of television channels in many languages, from countries as diverse as Qatar, Brazil and China. Earlier this year, the world tuned in to images from the Summer Olympics in London. With an estimated 4 billion people watching, over half of the world’s population witnessed this great sports event.
All these scenarios, involving people from all walks of life, near and far, are possible due to communication satellites, which I consider to be, or what I like to call “invisible hands in the sky”. We take for granted how these devices orbit the Earth and beam thousands of television and radio signals around the clock. Recalling the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”, I have no doubt that the existence of satellites has indeed created a “global village”.
First conceived in 1945 by the British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, satellites are pushing forward the globalization and unity of humanity in cultural, social, economic and humanitarian terms. This phenomenon has never been seen in our civilization before. This trend undoubtedly ought to continue, not only for the sake of international understanding and cooperation but also for peace and security and perhaps for the very survival of humankind, which always faces the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
However, these “invisible hands in the sky” are threatened by space junk, such as “dead” satellites and other objects. China, in a test of its weapons capabilities in 2007, intentionally destroyed its own defunct satellite, Fengyun-1C, with a land-based missile. The result produced extensive amounts of space junk that will continuously threaten satellites for possibly thousands of years. Such risks are real and can have devastating consequences, as demonstrated in 2009, when a defunct Russian satellite collided with an operational American Iridium satellite, disrupting communication services for many people on Earth.
It is time for the international community to make a concerted effort to ensure that space remains available for sustainable use for the benefit and interest of present and future generations. During the Summit on the Global Agenda, our Council on Space Security will – among others- try to find ways to bring these important issues to the attention of decision- and policy-makers around the world.
Author: Ram Jakhu is Associate Professor at the Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University, Canada and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Space Security
Image: Satellite dishes are seen on the side of a block of flats REUTERS/Luke MacGregor