Case enhancement: Developing an internet constellation

Activity: Anatomy of an internet satellite.

Author: Sarah Jayne Hitt, Ph.D. SFHEA (NMITE, Edinburgh Napier University).



This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part two section. It is based on the work done by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler and published by the SHARE Lab of the SHARE Foundation and the AI Now Institute of New York University, which investigates the “anatomy” of an Amazon Echo device in order to “understand and govern the technical infrastructures” of complex devices. Educators should review the Anatomy of an AI website to see the map and the complementary discussion in order to prepare and to get further ideas. This activity is fundamentally focused on developing systems thinking, a competency viewed as essential in sustainability that also has many ethical implications. Systems thinking is also an AHEP outcome (area 6). The activity could also be given a supply chain emphasis.

This could work as either an in-class activity that would likely take an entire hour or more, or it could be a homework assignment or a combination of the two. It could easily be integrated with technical learning. The activity is presented in parts; educators can choose which parts to use or focus on.


1. What are the components needed to make an internet satellite functional?:

First, students can be asked to brainstorm what they think the various components of an internet satellite are without using the internet to help them. This can include electrical, mechanical, and computing parts.

Next, students can be asked to brainstorm what resources are needed for a satellite to be launched into orbit. This could include everything from human resources to rocket fuel to the concrete that paves the launch pad. Each of those resources also has inputs, from chemical processing facilities to electricity generation and so forth.

Next, students can be asked to brainstorm what systems are required to keep the internet satellite operational throughout its time in orbit. This can include systems related to the internet itself, but also things like power and maintenance.

Finally, students can be asked to brainstorm what resources will be needed to manage the satellite’s end of life.

Small groups of students could each be given a whiteboard to make a tether diagram showing how all these components connect, and to try to determine the path dependencies between all of them.

To emphasise ethics explicitly, educators could ask students to imagine where within the tether diagram there could be ethical conflicts or dilemmas and why. Additionally, students could reflect on how changing one part of the system in the satellite would affect other parts of the system.


2. How and where are those components made?:

In this portion of the activity, students can research where all the parts of those components and systems come from – including metals, plastics, glass, etc. They should also research how and where the elements making up those parts are made – mines, factories, chemical plants, etc. – and how they are then shipped to where they are assembled and the corresponding inputs/outputs of that process.

Students could make a physical map of the globe to show where the raw materials come from and where they “travel” on their path to becoming a part of the internet satellite system.

To emphasise ethics explicitly, educators could ask students to imagine where within the resources map there could be ethical conflicts or dilemmas and why, and what the sustainability implications are of materials sourcing.


3. The anatomy of data:

In this portion of the activity, students can research how the internet provides access to and stores data, and the physical infrastructures required to do so. This includes data centres, fibre optic cables, energy, and human labour. Whereas internet service is often quite localised (for instance, students may be able to see 5G masts or the service vans of their internet service provider), in the case of internet satellites it is very distant and therefore often “invisible”.

To emphasise ethics explicitly, educators could ask students to debate the equity and fairness of spreading the supply and delivery of these systems beyond the area in which they are used. In the case of internet satellites specifically, this includes space and the notion of space as a common resource for all. This relates to other questions and activities presented in the case study.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Theme: Research, Knowledge exchange

Authors: Dr Matteo Ceriotti (University of Glasgow), Niven Payne (Fujitsu UK), Giulia Viavattene (University of Glasgow), Ellen Devereux (Fujitsu UK), Dr David Snelling (Fujitsu UK) and Matthew Nuckley (Fujitsu UK)

Keywords: Space, Debris Removal, Sustainability, Optimisation

Abstract: A partnership between the University of Glasgow, Fujitsu UK, Astroscale and Amazon Web Services was established in response to a UK Space Agency call on Active Debris Removal mission design. This is the process of de-orbiting space debris objects from low Earth orbit with a dedicated spacecraft. The consortium brought together different but complementary expertise and tools to develop an algorithm (using machine learning and quantum-based computing) to design multiple-debris removal missions, able to select feasible sequences of debris objects among millions of permutations, in a fraction of the time of previous methods, and of better performance in terms of time and propellant required.



Space and its services have become part of everyone’s daily life, quietly. Things like mapping, geolocation, telecommunication services and weather forecast all depend on space assets. The continuous and increasing exploration and exploitation of space heavily depends on sustainability: defunct satellites and other spacecraft and launcher parts that became part of space debris population, or “junk”, increasing the threat of collision for current and future missions. There are 34,000 objects larger than 10 cm, and 130 million smaller than 1 cm, including non-operational satellites, upper stage rocket bodies, satellite parts, etc. Most of these objects are in the low Earth orbit region (below 1000 km), which is where most satellites operate.

Design of new satellites for demise prevents the creation of further debris. Active debris removal (ADR) aims dispose of debris objects that are currently in orbit. ADR actions require a “chaser” spacecraft to grapple a “non-cooperative” target, and transfer it to an orbit low enough that it will eventually de-orbit and burn in the atmosphere in a relatively short amount of time.

The idea

Many ADR missions would be required to make a substantial contribution in diminishing the debris population. The business challenge was to investigate how we could make space debris removal missions more commercially viable. This project investigated the feasibility, viability and design of removal and disposal of multiple debris objects using a single chaser spacecraft. The mission scenario involves a spacecraft that transfers to the orbit of one or more objects, captures it (or them), and then transfers to a lower orbit for release and disposal. At low altitude, the atmospheric drag will quickly cause the object to rapidly fall and burn in the atmosphere. In the meantime, the chaser spacecraft will transfer to another object (or set of objects) and continue the mission.


The problem

With million pieces of space junk, there are multiple trillions of permutations for ADR missions between these objects, that would need to be investigated, to efficiently remove even only a few of them. Since orbital transfers have no analytical closed-form solutions, an optimisation strategy must be used to find a solution to trajectory design problems, which is generally computationally demanding.

Our solution

The aim of this project was to make space debris removal missions more commercially viable, through a new solution that allows fast mission planning. First, an Artificial Neural Network (ANN) is trained to predict the cost of orbital transfer to and disposal of a range of debris objects quickly. Then, this information is used to plan a mission of four captures from candidate possible debris targets using Fujitsu’s quantum-inspired optimisation technology, called Digital Annealer (DA), by formulating the problem as a quadratic unconstrained binary optimisation. We used Astroscale’s mission planning data and expertise, and run the algorithms on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Sagemaker platform. For technical details on our approach, the reader is referred to the publications below.


In a test-scenario, we showed that our solution produced a 25% faster mission, using 18% less propellant when compared to an expert’s attempt to plan the mission using the same assumptions; this was found 170,000 times faster than current methods based on an expert’s work.


The project involved the partnership of four institutions, with areas of contributions described in the following diagram:

We believe the key to the success of the partnership was the different, but complementary areas of expertise, tools offered, and contribution of each partner into the project. It may be easier to rely on existing network of contacts, often with similar areas of expertise. However, this project shows that the additional effort of creating a new partnership can have great benefits, that overcome the initial difficulties.

Project set up

An initial contact between Fujitsu and UofG defined the original idea of the project, combining the existing expertise on discrete optimisation (Fujitsu) and multi-body space missions (UofG). The team was strengthened by expertise in active space debris removal (Astroscale) and cloud computing (AWS). The project proposal was funded by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), for a duration of four months, from September 2020 to January 2021.

Due to the on-going global pandemic, the project was run entirely online, with weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams. Fujitsu, as team lead, was responsible for planning and scheduling of tasks, as well as integration of code and reporting.

Lessons learned and reflections

Reactivity in preparing a project proposal was fundamental for the project: The very first contact between the partners was made at the end of July 2020, the proposal was submitted in mid-August and the project officially kicked-off in September.

Given the short timeframe, it was important to conceive a project proposal that fit the scope of the funder, but also matches with available expertise and personnel. It was also critical to frame the business challenge in the proposal.

From the point of view of the academic team, and again given the short window between notification of successful application and start of the project, these factors were crucial for the success of the project:

A PhD student in the research group was the best candidate for the project: at the cost of taking a leave-of-absence from the PhD studentship, the project constituted a unique experience with industrial collaboration, enriched their CV through a ground-breaking project, added a conference and a journal paper to their track record, and eventually opened new areas of investigation for the rest of the PhD studentship.

It would have been probably unthinkable – or at not very credible – to deliver a project with new partners remotely without any in-person meeting before the pandemic; however, this turned out to be an enabler for this project, allowing to maximise time on actual development and save on travel costs.

Further information

G. Viavattene, E. Devereux, D. Snelling, N. Payne, S. Wokes, M. Ceriotti, Design of multiple space debris removal missions using machine learning, Acta Astronautica, 193 (2022) 277-286. DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2021.12.051

D. Snelling, E. Devereux, N. Payne, M. Nuckley, G. Viavattene, M. Ceriotti, S. Wokes, G. Di Mauro, H. Brettle, Innovation in planning space debris removal missions using artificial intelligence and quantum-inspired computing, 8th European Conference on Space Debris, ESA/ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany (Virtual Conference), 2021.


Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors:  Dr Nik Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Dr Sarah Jayne Hitt SFHEA (NMITE); Professor Thomas Lennerfors (Uppsala University); Claire Donovan (Royal Academy of Engineering); Professor Raffaella Ocone OBE FREng FRSE (Heriot Watt University); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Low earth orbit satellites for internet provision. 

Engineering disciplines: Electronics, Mechanical engineering.

Ethical issues: Respect for environment, Public good, Future generations.

Professional situations: Communication, Management, Working cultures.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Practise ethical analysis. Ethical analysis is a process by which ethical issues are defined, affected parties and consequences are identified, so that relevant moral principles can be applied to a situation in order to determine possible courses of action. 


Learning and teaching notes:

This case is about an experienced engineer leading a team at a tech start-up. The company has been awarded a contract to produce an innovative satellite that will be used in an internet constellation. While the team was initially excited about their work, some members are now concerned about the impact of the internet constellation. While mainly focused on environmental ethics, effects on human communities are also raised in this case study.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, this section enables students to practise different types of analysis and to introduce aspects of environmental ethics. It highlights the challenges of making ethical decisions with global consequences, in scenarios where policy isn’t clear. Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning by focusing on the course of actions taken by an individual engineer based on the dilemma presented in Part one. The Challenge of Environmental Ethics linked below is recommended, though not required, for students engaging with this case. Additionally, throughout the case, there is the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:


Learning and teaching resources: 



After years of working your way up the corporate ladder, you are now Head of Engineering for a tech start-up. The company has won a contract connected to a project creating a constellation of thousands of low Earth orbit satellites. This constellation has the potential to create a reliable system of internet access for areas of the world that are hard to reach by conventional infrastructure. Your company is one of those chosen to develop and build a low-cost, lightweight, efficient satellite that can be produced at scale. This is a huge accomplishment for you, as well as for your company. 


Dilemma – Part one:

A conference that brings together various project partners is met by protesters whose message is that the internet constellation has several potential negative impacts for nature and human communities. Disparaging comments have been made about your company’s participation in the project on social media. Some members of your team seem quite rattled by the protests, and you convene at a coffee shop to discuss. 


Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: Technical analysis – Undertake a technical activity in the areas of electronic and / or mechanical engineering related to internet constellations.

2. Activity: Position analysis – Divide students into three groups—constellation project managers; satellite engineers and protestors. Imagine how their positions are related to the internet constellation. What values might inform their positions? What knowledge might inform their position that the other groups do not have access to or understanding of?

3. Discussion: Environmental analysis – While nature cannot speak for itself, if it could, what might be its position on the internet constellation? What aspects of the natural world might be affected by this technology in both the short- and long-term? For example, are there any direct or indirect effects on the health of humans and the ecosystems around them? Should the natural world of space be treated the same way as the natural world on earth?

4. Discussion: Policy analysis – Who should make decisions about projects that affect nature on a global scale? What laws or regulations exist that govern internet constellations?

5. Discussion and Activity: Moral analysis – Use environmental ethics principles such as intrinsic value and anthropocentrism to debate the project. Beyond environmental concerns, how might other ethical approaches, such as consequentialism or justice, inform positions on the issue?


Dilemma – Part two:

You remind and explain to your team members that they, and the company, have a duty to the client. Everyone has been hired to deliver a specific project and been excited about overcoming the technical challenges to ensure the project’s success. The team agrees, but also expresses concern about aspects that aren’t in the project remit, such as how the satellite will be maintained and what will happen to it at the end of its life. They demand that you pause your work until an ethical review is conducted. 

You report all of this to the CEO, who reacts with disappointment and unhappiness at your team’s actions. She argues that the only thing your company is doing is building the satellite: it’s not your responsibility what happens to it afterwards. She feels that it’s your job to get your team back in line and on task. How do you approach this situation? 


Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion and Activity: How do you respond to this situation? What responsibilities do you have to your team, your boss, and the client? How will you balance these? Are the team’s engineers right to be concerned about the impact of their satellite within the wider constellation, or is it beyond their scope? Role-play an interaction between you and the engineering team, or between you and your boss.

2. Activity: Life cycle analysis – Research life cycles of satellites and their environmental impact.

3. Discussion and Activity: Debate if, and how, we have obligations to future generations. Is it possible to have a moral contract with a person that may never be born? How do we know that people in the future, will value the same things we do now? Both creating the internet constellation and preventing its implementation seem to potentially benefit future generations. How do we balance these ‘goods’ and make a decision on how to proceed? Who gets to decide?

4. Activity: Anatomy of an internet satellite – use the Anatomy of an AI case study as an example of a tether map, showing the inputs and outputs of a device. Create a tether map showing the anatomy of an internet satellite.



An enhancement for this case study can be found here.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.


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