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Machine-based communication (and navigation) relies extensively on satellites. In the future, with the massification of 5G, more and more reliance will be put on satellites (e.g. the Internet of Things), with other technologies (like fiber optic) becoming less prominent.

Inspired by a sci-fi movie I watched the other day, I wonder whether there is currently a technology (even if in development stage) capable of rendering the whole of Earth's satellite network useless in a fairly quick way. You would imagine this could have catastrophic consequences on Earth (and, connecting back to the sci-fi movie, would definitively give an antagonist alien race mastering that technology a significant advantage when attacking Earth).

I know there are tools to do radio jamming. However, that is still very localised (geographically as well as in terms of radio bandwidth). I'm more interested in a technology that could render the whole (Earth) network useless.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you trying to build such systems. If not it sounds like a question for worldbuilding.SE (or better yet suggest a terrorism.se on area 51 (; ) $\endgroup$ – joojaa Feb 18 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ If there are the tools that exist - who is going to tell you ? $\endgroup$ – Solar Mike Feb 18 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ There is a bit misconception here. Wireless is based on antenna towers. Satellites are only used by GPS which is a receive-only protocol. In other words EMPing all satellites in orbit is barely going to affect the internet. Cross-ocean communication is done by undersea glassfiber lines. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Feb 18 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Uh, neither IoT nor 5G (a mobile network tech!) need satellites for anything - satellite internet connection is way too slow and power-hungry. Only the navigation part is often done via GNSS, communication is not affected by taking down satellites. $\endgroup$ – Bergi Feb 18 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ Machine-based communication mostly relies on cell towers and wi-fi, which rely on undersea cables. 5G means more cell towers. And by the way there isn't a satellite network, there are lots of networks (that use their own satellites each), but that doesn't matter if you're going to destroy all satellites. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Feb 19 at 2:55

10 Answers 10

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Yes, Kessler Syndrome

In particular:

The Envisat satellite is a large, inactive satellite with a mass of 8,211 kg (18,102 lb) that drifts at 785 km (488 mi), an altitude where the debris environment is the greatest—two catalogued objects can be expected to pass within about 200 meters of Envisat every year—and likely to increase. It could easily become a major debris contributor from a collision during the next 150 years that it will remain in orbit.

It wouldn't be instantaneous but if you exploded a few suitable targets such as Envisat you could fill the relevant sections of space with destructive fragments that then cause a cascade of strikes into other targets. Space could become a very hostile environment in a few years and remain that way for decades.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting! With enough clutter orbiting Earth, we could be trapped inside, as it might be too risky to get a ship out without risking a collision. Looks like we are very vulnerable at the moment. $\endgroup$ – luchonacho Feb 18 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I was imagining that someone might launch a giant glitter bomb. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Feb 18 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Kessler Syndrome would be the most reliable method, but it would take some careful planning if you wanted to take out EVERY satellite. Satellites orbit the Earth at a range of altitudes and inclinations (angles relative to the equator). You would probably need at least a handful of collisions/explosions at various locations in order to reliably destroy every satellite. If you had months or years to wait for debris to spread and interact, you could probably get away with fewer initial collisions/explosions. $\endgroup$ – Kyle A Feb 18 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ Launching a truckload of small ball bearings into elliptical orbit that crosses the orbits of GPS satellites as well as geo-stationary satellites would be a pretty effective way to initiate the Kessler syndrome and mess up the most important satellite services in-use. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Feb 18 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ This is incorrect. Kessler syndrome applies only to a very specific orbit which makes launch difficult, but will be harmless to the vast majority of existing satellites. $\endgroup$ – forest Feb 18 at 23:33
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All at once, none that I know of. But you can always count on the good old human party trick:

Blow it up

The classical Bond's movie move is to send a few dozens missiles and take down enough of the network to accomplish your goal. Let's take GPS, for reference. GPS work with geo-synchronous satellites broadcasting an universal time set on an atomic clock1.
It it bothers you, skip that part:

Your device receive signals from those satellites that tell them when the satellite broadcasted it. It deduces the time each signal took to come from each satellite, thus allowing to triangulate your position (triangulate as in, you need at least 3 to pinpoint your position in space, otherwise, you end up with a sphere or a circle and it's not convenient).

What I'm getting at is that the system is highly dependent on its network. If you take out enough of the grid, you create at least a "no-service" zone (per Earth obscuration), or you make it completely ineffective.

My guess would be that a few missiles strikes would do quite a bit of damage to your satellite network. 1 (Not sure which missiles are able to reach satellite orbit if any though. But it's well within our reach, as well as any sci-fi race bothering visiting us)

Other option:

EMP

This one is highly hypothetical and should be taken with lots of care. EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) is a common sci-fi trope. Basically, a very powerful electro magnetic field disrupt electronics, and it's pretty nasty on computers. I think I remember Call of Duty MWII2 used a nuke exploding in orbit to disable satellites. Now, an explosion happening into the void of space does not end up in a big ball of fire a la Death Star. If I'm not mistaken, it instead produce electro magnetic radiation (among probably other things. I'm stressing 1 on this point).

Thing is, radiations and electro magnetic fields are probably something to expect in space. (Radiation is a given, EMP... maybe 3). So I wouldn't be surprised if satellites were protected against natural causes for this. But it might be worth looking into the theory.

This answer does not support any kind of attempt to take down satellites and I hereby decline responsibility if anyone manage to make sense of this thoroughly uninformed ramble and somehow devise the weapons to enact it.

1: No expert here, anyone feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something / made a mistake.
2: See why I said lots of care? [sarcasm]Very reliable source for sure [/sarcasm]
3: I mean, I know there is electro magnetic radiation in space, as even Earth has an electromagnetic field. The thing is, I don't know if they are powerful enough to fry electronics. Slight disgression here, that would need to be answered by someone actually knowledgeable about this.


Edit 1: As pointed in comments, I was mistaken about GPS using geo-synchronous satellites. Thanks to Zeiss Ikon and user71659 for their clarifications.4

Zeiss Ikon: "GPS are not geosynchronous. They're at 20,200 km, which is close to half of GEO height, and some are in highly inclined orbits rather than equatorial."

user71659: "GPS is designed to be difficult to blow up by having six separate orbital planes. [...] On top of that, there's literally more GPS satellites in orbit than the system can handle. The system needs 24, it can handle 31 at the same time, and there's 40 usable. The extras are simply on standby as spares. Compare that to GLONASS which is 1 away from losing global coverage and Galileo which 4 short for global coverage (delays & a launch mishap)."

It makes sense some network are designed to be robust since GPS was originally a military project under the name Navstar GPS. Including system redundancy is done precisely to counter-act the loss of a few satellites. If we follow user71659 comment, you'd need to blow up at least 17 satellites to impede the system (to which extent, I don't know). user71659 also suggested geo comsats would be an easier target to disable. Unfortunately, I'd need a little disambiguation as a research results are numerous, so I suggest you ask directly our fellow terrorist.SE user.

Furthermore, the Kessler effect have been pointed out several times in other answers. I didn't include it in mine for two reasons.
First, I didn't know the name of the phenomenon at the time, though it would be an obvious byproduct of exploding satellites.
Second, satellites using differents orbits at differents altitudes, I suppose it would not be "just" blowing up some satellites and would requires some maths beforehand to ensure enough remaining orbital devices would be hit in an acceptable time-frame (before the lost ones are replaced). Probability is an hard mistress though, and she commands that, if a satellite and debris have a chance to collide, they eventually will.

4: Let's give credit where it's due.

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    $\begingroup$ GPS are not geosynchronous. They're at 20,200 km, which is close to half of GEO height, and some are in highly inclined orbits rather than equatorial. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 18 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ GPS is designed to be difficult to blow up by having six separate orbital planes. It trades off some accuracy for that. It is more robust than the other systems, EU Galileo, Russian GLONASS and Chinese BeiDou, all of which use 3 orbital planes. On top of that, there's literally more GPS satellites in orbit than the system can handle. The system needs 24, it can handle 31 at the same time, and there's 40 usable. The extras are simply on standby as spares. Compare that to GLONASS which is 1 away from losing global coverage and Galileo which 4 short for global coverage (delays & a launch mishap). $\endgroup$ – user71659 Feb 19 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, bad example then. Thanks for the information, I will edit accordingly $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai Feb 19 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Nyakouai I'd say geo comsats would be the most vulnerable. Already happened before. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Feb 19 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @atayenel en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_of_Duty:_Modern_Warfare_2#Story It is a nuke (double checked, it's explicitly stated in other languages) but the result is an EMP. $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai Feb 19 at 12:07
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The most obvious solution is the high-altitude nuke. Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcTrOGS3TyE

Just to summarize: nuclear blast sends a lot of charged particles at hight speed away. Earth's magnetic field redirects that back-and-forth, and since moving charges means current, and alternating current induces current in wires, it kills a lot of sensitive electric stuff, including satellites, telephone lines, electric cables, and everything connected to the end of those. So there will be a lot of collateral damage, only use this if your story supports it.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, this exactly. We happen to know that this is quite effective at destroying satellites, as we've unintentionally destroyed several of them this way already. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 19 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ The high altitude nuke is probably not high enough to affect satellites in geosynchronous orbit, because most ballistic missiles can't reach the required altitude. $\endgroup$ – Joe Feb 19 at 12:59
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A rocket armed with a grenade launcher and 2000 grenades

There are about 2000 satellites. Therefore, just make a rocket, launch it into space, and have it start firing grenades into each satellite individually. Satellites are designed to survive radiation and vacuums, not explosions. Apparently, they are structurally very fragile to save weight.

Note that you do not need to chase the satellites. That would take a lot of fuel. Instead, you can just aim the grenades at the satellites. There's (almost) no air resistance in space, so you can fire as far as your accuracy and precision permits.

If you got enough cash, you could even fire or throw the grenades yourself. This would be a lot more expensive, since you need to launch a human into space and get a lot closer to the targets (since humans are not good at aiming), all on top of the tyranny of the rocket equation. However, that's a small price to pay to be the person to destroy all of Earth's satellites by dual-wielding grenade launchers in space, in my opinion.

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    $\begingroup$ In was going to downvote because the logistics of getting enough shooters into space is daunting, but then i saw that the shooter is dual wielding, so that's an upvote. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Feb 19 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ depending on the fire rate of the (hopefully full-auto?) grenade launchers the shooter is dual wielding, it may not even be necessary to put her into orbit - a brief stint above atmosphere may be sufficient, like with an ICBM. Great stuff. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Feb 19 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ @bukwyrm Well, having a human fire the grenades would take much longer, since you need to get close enough for a human to aim. For an automatic rocket, you might only need elevation, not orbital velocity. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Feb 19 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ Might want separate missiles for LEO, MEO, and GEO, as the altitudes are so vastly different. Or maybe one that fires off rounds at lower orbits as it continues to higher, maybe when boosters separate. $\endgroup$ – user3294068 Feb 19 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ This should probably go without saying, but the distances and relative velocities are so high that the odds of hitting a satellite with an unguided projectile are almost exactly 0%, there can be relative velocities between different orbits in excess of 10 km/s (i.e. between equatorial and polar orbit), try hitting something passing by a few hundred km away at mach 30. Usually we don't even have enough certainty of the exact location of a satellite to be able to reliably hit it even with absolutely perfect accuracy and timing, knowing where it is to within say 10 m is not good enough. $\endgroup$ – Blake Walsh Feb 20 at 14:18
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Both the US and old USSR had anti-satellite weapons in development before agreeing a treaty to play nice in space. I don't know if the results were ever considered viable weapons but I can't believe they would have deleted the blueprints. The Chinese actually shot at one of their own satellites a few years back.

So if we can do this now, then your postulated aliens with the technology to cross interstellar space should have no problems targeting a few thousand sittings ducks moving in well ordered and predictable orbits.

A shotgun makes a very capable weapon in orbit, with the advantage that the pellets don't fall to ground after 50m. If you can use laser, maser, emp/x-ray bursts or even old fashioned kinetic weapons it shouldn't be an impossible task. The magazine of the A-10 Thunderbolt carried 1350 rounds, so with perfect marksmanship you'd only need 4. Actually you could afford quite a few misses!

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    $\begingroup$ The U.S. Navy shot down a defunct U.S. NRO satellite before the Chinese did it, actually, so, yeah, it's pretty well known that the technology is still around. They just used the existing Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system to shoot it down with an SM-3. $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 19 at 6:18
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Some well-known hypotheticals:

  • Have something crash into something to start the Kessler Syndrome.
  • Build a big, ground-based laser or maser and start to take potshots at satellites. The US stopped Star Wars before it got there. The Chinese might have something like this.
  • Come up with a set of malware to attack the ground control and to send destructive commands, like "spend all the maneuvering fuel get onto collision course with another sat." The problem, those control systems are rather hard.
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    $\begingroup$ And the Soviet actually launched a prototype orbital laser weapon (which crashed back in the atmosphere because of a tiny computer bug, and then Perestroika happened) $\endgroup$ – Eth Feb 18 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Eth Wow, epic fail. "For technical reasons, the payload was launched upside down. It was designed to separate from the Energia, rotate 180 degrees in yaw, then 90 degrees in roll and then fire its engine to complete its boost to orbit. The Energia functioned perfectly. However, after separation from Energia, the Polyus spun a full 360 degrees instead of the planned 180 degrees. When the engine fired, it slowed and burned up in the atmosphere over the south Pacific Ocean." Oops. $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 19 at 6:06
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A solar flare is capable of doing just that. A strong enough one hitting the earth directly would knock out any satellite facing the sun. So while it may not hit EVERY satellite, it would get more than half - remember the satellites are high above the earth.

So, if an alien race had large solar flare level technology, it would likely destroy a large portion of our satellites. Give that the majority of our space communications are over the northern hemisphere (most 1st world counties and land mass are there), this would basically destroy most of them if positioned appropriately.

See for instance: https://sciencing.com/solar-flares-affect-communication-23537.html

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    $\begingroup$ While radiation from solar flares does indeed induce radio blackouts and cause some satellites to fail entirely, most satellites are designed to survive flares and CMEs. The biggest danger to satellites from flares and CMEs is that increased solar activity expands the Earth's atmosphere, increasing drag substantially for objects in Low Earth Orbit, causing them to deorbit sooner than planned. A Carrington level event is, of course, beyond the radiation hardening that current satellites are designed to survive. $\endgroup$ – Ghedipunk Feb 18 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like the question then is could an alien race realistically produce a Carrington type flare to knock out satellites. Because their range is closer and could be localized one target at a time shots they might need less energy than that. $\endgroup$ – user61498 Feb 19 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ As i think more a potentially better solution if we really are considering alien level tech would be a dozen ships (i assume they take more than 1) with cloaking tech and simply blow them up 12 at once and then another 12 shortly after. Because we can't see the ships it would take too long to respond before they were all gone. As for cloaking, lots of researchers are working on nanostructures and left handed materials that are close to achieving cloaking with our own tech level. So we know that stuff is possible. It isn't quite a quick as maybe the op wants but would do the job. $\endgroup$ – user61498 Feb 19 at 2:00
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Neither 5G nor IoT depend on satellites at all. Satellites are used primarily for Navigation (GPS, GLONASS) and in the public sector, television.

What is 5G

5G is broken down into two different radio bands.

  • 600 MHz to 6 GHz
  • 24–86 GHz

Anything above 2GHz(2000MHz) will be mostly blocked by hard surfaces, and have very short travel distances. Those 24GHz+ signals would be blocked by a piece of paper.

What is IoT

IoT stands for Internet of Things, its a buzzphrase commonly used to refer to devices that, pre-2010, were not connected to the internet, such as fridges, ovens, lights, televisions.

IoT seems to be a large marketing point for 5G, but as we have already defined earlier, the range of high speed 5G will be no longer than wifi, and in most cases shorter. Therefore these devices would function perfectly fine on normal wifi.

Now, lets look at what you REALLY want

Can you jam every radio signal on earth? Yes, and no. Lets look at some points.

  • High frequency radio waves, are hard to JAM, because their range is so short, therefore the jammers range will be just as short.
  • Low frequency radio waves, are much easier to JAM, and this could be done by simply placing satellites surrounding the earth that broadcast waves across the entirety of the low-spectrum.

Is there a way, then to jam those high frequency signals? Maybe, radiation from an extremely powerful source, could interfere with those signals. For example: The Sun.

If you could find a way to remove earth's magnetosphere, then the radiation from the sun would be enough to knock out all communications on earth, it would even interfere with hard wired links(not fiber)!

Unfortunately, that also has the undesirable side effect of destroying all life on the planet, fairly quickly. :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Great clarifying answer. $\endgroup$ – luchonacho Feb 19 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ All life, or all surface life? There's some pretty interesting stuff living deep in the ocean. $\endgroup$ – Martin Carney Feb 19 at 20:44
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I suppose if your aliens can cross light years of space, they might have some as-yet-unexplained way to cause a massive solar flare or coronal mass ejection.

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    $\begingroup$ If you could explain the some as-yet-unexplained way the answer would substantially improve $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Feb 18 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ This is basically the plot of Sunstorm. $\endgroup$ – ununseti Feb 19 at 7:56
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Since the technology stack you describe likely will depend on the Internet Protocol, it might be possible to just corrupt the routes the packages take: by targeting the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP, which is the protocol the big routers at your Internet Service Provider speak among each other to find the shortest route for a packet to its destination) from a few strategically positioned routers under your control (positioned in the logical network structure, not necessarily physically). Even though the satellites are not routers, they form one possible link between routers ... and in the scenario you describe, they may as well have become routers.

Side note: I think here's a flaw in your story: satellites will not become the most prominent data link, just because they are so far away from earth. The light speed is a hard limit and data will take considerably more time to go over a satellite link than a cable. It really is no fun to play a fast game via satellite link just because of a two-way latency ("ping time") of at least 690ms (see http://www.dslreports.com/faq/2001). But okay, let's set that aside for your story.

The gist of the attack would be to advertise on the lower network layers (where BGP is spoken) that you have got the shortest route to every destination, therefore persuading all routers not under your control to send all packets via your routers ... where you can drop them into nirvana. This has happened already, see e.g. https://www.securityweek.com/google-services-inaccessible-due-bgp-leak -- a Nigerian Internet Service Provider blocked not only their own users from using Google, but blocked wide parts of the internet by advertising that the shortest routes to Googles servers are through Russia, Nigeria and China. There are countermeasures that could be taken, but these are, in essence, manual: other router admins have to mark the routers where the problematic BGP data originate from as untrustworthy.

Now, if you have enough big routers under your control (your own, hacked by you, however you gained control...), you might be able to pull this off for an extended period of time, essentially dividing the network of networks that the internet is into single networks that cannot communicate with each other anymore.

Disclaimer: I'm only a computer scientist, not a network security engineer. I recommend to fact-check this story on an SE about network security.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's... unlikely. BGP is a pretty naive protocol, as it assumes that everyone knows what they are doing, so indeed out of the box you can get stupid stuff done. However, precisely because it's naive, experienced admins will configured their BGP gateways to NOT blindly trust others, instead having various white-lists etc... you may catch some admins unaware, but if they are competent the problem within minutes to hours. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Feb 19 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. That just raises the routers you need to "own" up to ... a quarter of the total? I think? It isn't that inconceivable that in the scenario described a global company owns that many central routers (especially if these all run on satellites, where it is harder to get into the market), making all others depend on that company. $\endgroup$ – orithena Feb 20 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ Today, about each ISP has its own BGP routers. That's hundreds of actors. And no, they will not run on satellites: the speed of light makes it impractical, and nothing goes faster than light. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Feb 20 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. I agree on that latter point (see the side note in my answer). $\endgroup$ – orithena Feb 20 at 9:12

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