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This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: The growing problem of space junk

Joanna Kao
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Monday, November 22nd, and this is your FT News Briefing.

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Saudi Arabia has a plan to build up its own military industry. One of the most famous sports partnerships is on the rocks. Plus, commercial space activity is growing, but no one’s overseeing what’s going on up there.

Peggy Hollinger
Space is a big place, but we have plans to send up so many satellites that it’s increasingly becoming congested.

Joanna Kao
Our international business editor Peggy Hollinger will talk about a big threat to all those satellites in orbit. I’m Joanna Kao, in for Marc Filippino, and here’s the news you need to start your day.

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Saudi Arabia spent nearly $60bn on defence last year by one estimate. Almost all of that was on imported weaponry. Now, Riyadh wants to build up its own military industry. The goal is to increase local production to 50 per cent of defence spending within a decade. That fits with Crown Prince Mohammed’s plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. He also wants to make the country more self-reliant. A company set up by the government last year recently invested in a factory in Riyadh that makes parts for bombs and drones. The government also wants arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin to move production and maintenance to the kingdom.

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For tens of millions of people around the world, the name Fifa doesn’t mean soccer’s governing body. It’s a video game. Fifa’s licensing deal with video game maker Electronic Arts has been one of the most mutually beneficial relationships in sports. But the partners are on the verge of breaking up. FT sports editor Murad Ahmed has more.

Murad Ahmed
So there was a renegotiation over the name. Fifa wanted a lot more money to use its name in the video game. Electronic Arts, first of all, didn’t want to pay more money, but also didn’t want to be limited in how it could use the name and how it could expand the franchise. It wants to move into things like non-fungible tokens, this kind of digital memorabilia, it wants to launch e-sports tournaments and lots of other ways to use this brand. And Fifa didn’t want to have this kind of expansive use of its name. So that’s the heart of the battle. The other thing that happened is the EA did its own internal analysis and effectively decided that the game is more important than the name and that the gamers would stick with it. And that’s the bet it’s taking.

Joanna Kao
Electronic Arts has even prepared for life after Fifa by trademarking a new name for a soccer video game, and Fifa’s negotiation tactic may have gone awry.

Murad Ahmed
I think from all the people I’ve spoken to, Fifa didn’t quite understand what it was getting into when they asked for more money. I think potentially there was a bit of arrogance on their part that the huge growth of the game would naturally mean more going towards them. But for EA’s perspective, I think what they have with other games like the Madden NFL franchise in the States and other games, is that usually governing bodies can bring a lot to the table once you do a deal with them. Not only the name, they can bring all the teams and lots of other things that are valuable to the company. In Fifa’s case, they can’t actually do that. They can bring the name, and they can bring rights to the World Cup, but they don’t have the rights over the biggest leagues in the world, the biggest clubs in the world, the biggest players in the world. So EA started to do a calculation, how much is this deal with Fifa worth and is it really going to damage the game? And they decided, first of all, it’s not worth a lot more money than they currently pay. And secondly, it may not even damage the game at all.

Joanna Kao
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor.

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Russia blew up one of its old defunct satellites last week. It was a deliberate destruction and the satellite exploded into countless fragments. US Space Command said it could identify about 1500 fragments, but there are likely hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces now spinning around the earth at 25,000km an hour, all in an uncontrolled fashion.

Peggy Hollinger
So they can go out of the existing orbit that that satellite was in, and they can go higher or lower in the orbits above the earth. And therefore present a real danger to other satellites that are out there.

Joanna Kao
That’s Peggy Hollinger, our international business editor. She’s been looking into the pollution caused by all the activity going on in space, not just military but commercial as well, and it’s largely unregulated. She joined me to talk more about this. How big of a threat is this?

Peggy Hollinger
It’s a huge threat. The French are estimating that as a result of what the Russians have done, the chances of something called a Kessler syndrome have increased by about five per cent. And the Kessler syndrome is where you have fragments travelling around the earth in a random fashion. They’re not following set trajectories so they can go into higher orbits or lower orbits. They go where they will. And if they hit another satellite, and if they do enough damage, they either create more fragments by blowing up a part of that satellite or damaging that satellite, which then add to the sum total of space debris, then themselves start travelling in a random fashion. And you might have even more fragments, which means there’s a greater risk of hitting even more satellites. It’s a chain reaction. And the problem then, is that you have lots of satellites up there in orbit that are delivering vital security information to us, communications. We’re relying on satellites more and more for earth observations, also for mobility as we look at autonomous driving, et cetera. So it’s a real threat.

Joanna Kao
So how urgent is this problem?

Peggy Hollinger
It’s a very serious problem. Space is a big place, but we have plans to send up so many satellites that it’s increasingly becoming congested. And part of the problem is that in this part of the orbit, which is low earth orbit, anything up to 2,000km, that’s the sweet spot, if you like, for a lot of new types of communication. Everybody wants to go there because we can all see there’s a possibility of creating new businesses and creating a new kind of economy, a new frontier for economic potential in low earth orbit, so everybody wants to go up there. Recently, Rwanda applied to launch 300,000 satellites. Kepler, a Canadian satellite company, recently got approval for more than 117,000 satellites, I believe. You just look at the scale and pace at which we’re launching or intending to launch satellites. There are ambitions to launch more satellites into low earth orbit than there is plans to actually bring these satellites down the older, defunct satellites down. So you’re increasingly crowding space. And part of the problem is the more satellites you have up there, the more the risk of collision. So we really have to get to grips with this before we’re at a stage where there’s no turning back and before we lock off space to any future launches.

Joanna Kao
So what’s being done right now to get this under control?

Peggy Hollinger
Well, everyone knows that space debris is a problem. There have been over many years, many, many attempts to try and agree some sort of rules and regulations for what we put up in space. And they they constantly run up against both geopolitics, you know, whatever the Chinese want to do, the Americans don’t want to do. Whatever the Americans want to do, the Chinese and Russians don’t want to do. And everybody’s proving a point. And then on top of that, with this new gold rush for low earth orbit, every country wants to have a slice of that. So every country basically wants to shoot up as many satellites or give as much permission for satellites as they can before we start imposing new rules. And there’s no real traffic control system for where these satellites are placed. Each member state is responsible for the regulation of their own industry and ultimately everyone’s reluctant to pool the power and the control. And what I find quite surprising is, you know, we we know we can do this. We’ve done this in the civil aviation sphere because we know that we want to keep people safe because aviation is hugely important for the global economy. We should be thinking about the same thing for space. And we should be thinking about it in particular right now, because we can see what we’ve done on planet earth with, you know, a rush to industrialisation and using all our resources and production systems without thinking about the impact. And now we’re paying the price of that and we’re at risk of doing exactly the same thing in orbit, that we’ve done here on earth. And I can tell you the cost will be substantially higher if we wait for everybody to grab their slice and do whatever they want. The cost of rectifying the consequences will be far higher than if we decided to deal with this now.

Joanna Kao
Peggy Hollinger is the FT’s international business editor. Thanks, Peggy.

Peggy Hollinger
Thank you, Joanna.

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Joanna Kao
Before we go, there’s been a massive global migration of cryptocurrency mining machines. If you recall earlier this year, China banned cryptocurrency mining in the country and mining companies had to move their gear out. It was an exodus of more than two million of these clunky, power guzzling machines. The Financial Times gathered data on where they ended up. Most landed in the US, Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia. But so many machines were relocated there wasn’t enough room. Some found homes in small countries with cheap power like Venezuela. Others are still stuck in ports.

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You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the latest business news.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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