Launching satellites in to space has always been a dream endeavor. A source of national pride as well as pinnacle of decades of human engineering, space journeys are nothing short of miracles. Ever since humans took to flying, nations have attempted to conquer the space and been in a race to launch new satellites, both looking inwards towards the Earth and those looking outwards towards the vast and immeasurable expanse of unknown Space. The space race has heated up with each breakthrough in technology and has transformed from monolithic government enterprises to an agile and cutting-edge private domain.
Since the start of the first space race, a cold-war era much celebrated source of national pride, countries have launched nearly 8,400 satellites in to space, of which roughly 2,800 are still in operation (data compiled through various sources, see here and here). According to Statista, of the 2,666 active artificial satellites orbiting the Earth as of March 31, 2020, 1,327 belong to the United States. This is by far the largest number of any single country, with their nearest competitor, China, accounting for only 363. During the last decade however, the space race has largely transformed to a private sector endeavor, with SpaceX transforming the dimensions of everything about launching satellites. The last two decades have been the most promising from the perspective of advancement in technology, as well as the advent of micro usage of satellites. The focus of the satellite launch missions is shifting away from traditional large satellites towards small satellites. Broadly speaking, there are 9 different kinds of satellites launched in to Space, depending on their function and the distance from Earth these satellites operate from. There are nine different types of satellites i.e. Communications Satellite, Remote Sensing Satellite, Navigation Satellite, LEO, MEO, HEO, GPS, GEOs, Drone Satellite, Ground Satellite, Polar Satellite.
During the 1950s and 60s important work like Orbital Radio Relay by American engineers John Pierce of American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s (AT&T’s) Bell Laboratories and spin-stabilization technology that provided stability to satellites orbiting in space by Harold Rosen of Hughes Aircraft Company helped in making commercial communication satellites possible. When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958, it embarked on a program to develop satellite technology. Soon, this work was followed by Telstar1, launched on top of a Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962, which successfully relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and telegraph images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed followed by Telstar 2 which was launched May 7, 1963. Telstar1 transmitted the first phone call via satellite—a brief call from AT&T chairman Frederick Kappel transmitted from the ground station in Andover, Maine, to U.S. Pres. Lyndon Johnson in Washington, D.C. Following the success of Telstar, NASA soon started an experimental spacecraft program for active geosynchronous communication satellites, known as Syncom, all of which were developed and manufactured by Hughes Space and Communications. Syncom 2, launched in 1963, was the world’s first geosynchronous communications satellite. Syncom 3, launched in 1964, was the world’s first geostationary satellite.
One of the foremost and earliest uses of Satellites has been to create a blanket around the Earth to establish seamless and fast communication. According to Britannica, the idea of communicating through a satellite first appeared in the short story titled “The Brick Moon,” written by the American clergyman and author Edward Everett Hale and published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1869–70. The story describes the construction and launch into Earth orbit of a satellite 200 feet (60 metres) in diameter and made of bricks. The brick moon aided mariners in navigation, as people sent Morse code signals back to Earth by jumping up and down on the satellite’s surface. The first practical concept of satellite communication was proposed by 27-year-old Royal Air Force officer Arthur C. Clarke in a paper titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” published in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World. Clarke, who would later become an accomplished science fiction writer, proposed that a satellite at an altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above Earth’s surface would be moving at the same speed as Earth’s rotation. At this altitude the satellite would remain in a fixed position relative to a point on Earth. This orbit, now called a “geostationary orbit,” is ideal for satellite communications, since an antenna on the ground can be pointed to a satellite 24 hours a day without having to track its position. Clarke calculated in his paper that three satellites spaced equidistantly in geostationary orbit would be able to provide radio coverage that would be almost worldwide with the sole exception of some of the polar regions.
Telecommunications satellite are Earth-orbiting system capable of receiving a signal (e.g., data, voice, TV) and relaying it back to the ground. Communications satellites have been a significant part of domestic and global communications since the 1970s. The use of satellite communication in telecommunications pertains essentially to the use of artificial satellites to provide communication links between various points on Earth. Satellite communications play a vital role in the global telecommunications system. Approximately 2,500 artificial satellites orbiting Earth relay analog and digital signals carrying voice, video, and data to and from one or many locations worldwide.
LEO, Low Earth Orbit, and MEO, Medium Earth Orbit, satellites come under the category of non-geostationary-orbit (NGSO) satellites. LEO satellites orbit at an altitude below 1,243 miles above mean sea level, while MEO satellites orbit in the region between LEO and GEO (geostationary) satellites – between 1,243 – 22,245 miles. Geostationary Satellite is an earth-orbiting satellite, placed at an altitude of approximately 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) directly over the equator, that revolves in the same direction the earth rotates (west to east). At this altitude, one orbit takes 24 hours, the same length of time as the earth requires to rotate once on its axis. LEOs or Low Earth Orbit satellites are being increasingly used in space since the 1990s. In the last decade, rapid advances in camera technology and computer miniaturization have allowed for reduction in payloads using advanced optical imaging or radar observations which in turn led to smaller and smaller satellites.
Image Source: Wikipedia
Furthermore, advances in technology have introduced many novel concepts that have revolutionized the race to launch satellites. First of these technological advances is that of re-use of hardware, a hitherto unheard of phenomena that has taken the entire satellite industry by storm and has now become the de-facto inspirational standard. While previous space missions did offer some re-usability, Falcon Heavy was the first to offer reusable launch vehicles, i.e. the hardware used to launch the actual space shuttle or satellites or other payload. The rocket boosters used on these missions now have a controlled and breathtakingly simultaneous landing onto the launch pad. This recovery massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. The Falcon Heavy has been promoted as providing a cost of roughly US$1,300 per kg of payload, while the space shuttle cost approximately US$60,000 per kg. Secondly, instead of producing a bunch of different engines with a bunch of different horsepower ratings, satellite launch companies are now focused on having just one first-stage engine, the Merlin. The more powerful a rocket has to be, the more first stage rockets, or Merlins in case of SpaceX, are bundled into its first stage. SpaceX’s initial test rockets flew on just one Merlin. The workhorse of the SpaceX fleet, Falcon 9 which used a single cluster comprised of nine engines, as implied by its name. The Falcon Heavy uses three of those clusters, utilizing 27 first stage engines in total. This fades in comparison to the Saturn V’s five, the SLS’s four and the Delta IV’s three. The Atlas V, which can be configured with different numbers of first stage engines, maxes out at six. Of course with the increase of multi-engine use, risk has increased of any one of them breaking down or blowing up and jeopardizing the whole mission, or in the worst case scenario, destroying the whole space ship and its payload and causing loss of human life. However, advances in technology and increased scientific knowledge on aerodynamics concepts and safety measures mean that actual chances of any untoward incident are minimal.
Companies ranging from OneWeb to SpaceX and Planet have been deploying large fleets of satellites (fleets that could eventually include thousands of individual satellites) for applications ranging from telecommunications to Earth observation. One of the reasons why the LEO sector has become a hotbed of investment in recent years is that space has become more commercially accessible. Launch costs which historically were prohibitive, have come down dramatically, particularly since SpaceX started an Uber-pool style service last year that allows small satellites to hitch a ride on its Falcon 9 rocket. The company’s ride-share program launches satellites into orbit for as little as US$1-million for 220 kilograms, according to Space X’s website. More than profit margins however, SpaceX should be identified with the disruption it is leading in the global space industry as we saw previously with SpaceX’s path breaking innovation of reusable hardware and simplistic design concepts.
Image Source: Starlink
Depending on the specific use, amount of latency expected and conditions of operations, LEO, Low Earth Orbit, and MEO, Medium Earth Orbit, and Geostationary satellites are deployed. Owing to their higher operating altitudes, geostationary satellites tend to gravitate towards higher latency with less spatial resolution of data when compared with non-geostationary orbit satellites or NGSO . However, in a maritime context for example, a delay of milliseconds has little impact upon the transmission of certain applications, eg, ship condition reports and live engine data. And for land stations, the main advantage of GEO satellites is that they are always in the same position relative to the earth, meaning that antennas require no reorientation. Coming to non-geostationary orbit satellites or NGSO, one of the main advantages of NGSO satellites over GEO satellites is considerably lower latency. Due to the operating distance over earth, GEO satellites have roughly 550 milliseconds of round-trip latency time, while LEO satellites boast a latency of 240 milliseconds, providing a distinct and significant advantage in the cutting age of real-time applications. For example, the combination of high bandwidth and low latency is a highly-prized aid in the implementation of telecommunications, videoconferencing, and so on.
Image Source: Popular Mechanics
In the recent years since the advent of Tesla’s SpaceX and its path-breaking new generation of rockets which offer re-use capabilities the space race has heated up attracting billions of dollars in investments and interests from the best and biggest organizations. Amazon’s project Kuiper recently got the green light from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission last month for a 3,236-satellite constellation, just as London-based OneWeb has emerged from bankruptcy proceedings with US$1-billion in fresh capital to restart its own project. Ottawa-based Telesat, meanwhile, has locked down spectrum – the radio frequencies used to transmit wireless signals – and secured millions in funding from the federal government as it looks to deploy a smaller, more efficient constellation of nearly 300 LEO satellites. SpaceX’s application for a Basic International Telecommunications Services licence in Canada garnered a number of supportive submissions to the regulator. More than 2,000 parties submitted responses to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s website, many of them from rural households and businesses cheering the initiative. Their plan is to offer high-end internet coverage for clients like governments, mining companies and shipping conglomerates, as well as extending internet coverage to regions too remote or too poor to make use of conventional ground based internet. As regards the future of satellite communications, network providers are looking towards the integration of new LEO and MEO solutions with existing, tried-and-tested GEO services so as to provide the most productive and cost-effective amalgamation of coverage and bandwidth usage.
OneWeb, recorded an average latency of 32 milliseconds in July 2019 on transmissions between space and South Korea. Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has said that his Starlink satellite system is aiming for a latency of 20 milliseconds initially, which he further hopes to cut in half gradually. By contrast, geostationary orbit systems have a median latency of nearly 600 milliseconds for a round trip.
With the growing digital divide fueled by lagging investment in rural communications infrastructure, which is exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity is ripe for new age solutions providers to move in. Billions of dollars are pouring in to satisfy the world’s insatiable appetite for bandwidth, particularly in far-flung regions where laying fibre-optic cables is prohibitively expensive. The need to stay connected has moved workplaces, schools and even health care services online, further highlighting the digital divide between users who have access to affordable, high-speed internet and those who don’t. For the average user that relies on fast internet speeds for business, education and more, download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 10 Mbps are required as the bare minimum to participate in those activities, while most users in rural areas actually get a fraction of that.
In a related development not so long ago, the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and other Northern Ontario stakeholders has turned its attention skyward calling for better access to high-speed internet with the Municipal advocacy group calling on the Canadian government to allow Musk’s Starlink an operating licence. The announcement follows the passing of a resolution at its recent board meeting. FONOM, which represents 100 communities in northeastern Ontario, works to better municipal government in Northern Ontario and improve legislation respecting local government in the North.
Numerous government bodies, at local, state and national or Federal levels have expressed interest in public-private partnerships with the dual aim of providing connectivity to far-flung and difficult to reach areas, while also aiming to use private enterprise to speed up breakthroughs in the field of satellite communications.
The Canadian government has made investments in improving rural and remote broadband internet including funding to Telesat who want to build a satellite constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and has agreed to spend up to 600 million Canadian dollars ($456.6 million) more on capacity.
If Musk has his way, by 2025 no less than 11,943 of his satellites will circle the Earth, and if permission is granted, the ultimate result would be a staggering 42,000. SpaceX is planning to beam broadband directly to consumers; each home will be outfitted with a half-metre-wide circular antenna resembling a UFO on a stick. Telesat, meanwhile, is focused on enterprise clients such as the aerospace and maritime industries. It also plans to provide “backhaul” connectivity to telecom companies, which will then transmit the signal to customers’ homes via ground-based networks. Amazon is aiming for a mix of residential customers and telecom carriers. For its part, the telecom companies do not view LEO companies as competitors, analysts say, because the new satellite providers are focused on areas where it’s impractical to build networks of fibre-optic cables.
Image Source: Cnet
According to Lluc Palerm, a senior analyst at consultancy firm Northern Sky Research, the LEO industry is projected to expand as global demand for connectivity grows. Today, satellite communications generates about US$10-billion to US$15-billion in revenue annually, comprising about 1 per cent of the telecommunications market. That could grow to as much as 5 per cent of overall telecom industry revenues, Mr. Palerm says. Mr. Musk has said he believes the revenue opportunity for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is around US$30-billion.
As satellites get smaller, they are getting easier to build and launch. All this may sound music to some ears, but for a section of experts, this is worrisome.
While neither Low Earth Orbit Satellites nor the use of Satellites for communication are new concepts, what is different is the sheer scale of recent proposals, with the big firms planning to launch satellites in the thousands. The new ventures are counting on savings from smaller, cheaper satellites and reusable rockets, along with more powerful software capable of tracking all those hand-offs.
But the costs of building LEO constellations are astronomical and technological hurdles remain. While LEO satellites operating in constellations, or groups of tens or hundreds of satellites, promise to solve the burning issue of latency encountered with the existing fleet of geostationary (GEO) satellites, they also come with a much higher price tag. According to Telesat, In the world of telecommunications, LEO satellites which orbit the planet in a constellation formation, enable download speeds that are eight times faster than traditional satellite systems and on par with those offered by fibre-optic cable.
The high cost of LEO satellites owes to a mixture of high manufacturing and high operating costs. A typical communications satellite costs as much as US$60,000 a kilogram and with average weight around 300 to 400 kilograms for each satellite, and the need to operate in a group of satellites, the cost quickly climbs up. As Low Earth Orbit LEO and Medium Earth Orbit MEO satellites do not synchronise with the Earth’s rotation and orbit the earth more rapidly than GEO satellites – an orbital period of 128 minutes or less for LEO, and an average of between 2 and 8 hours for MEO – multiple satellites are required in order to achieve seamless coverage.
In addition, the primary difference between Geostationary satellites and LEOs is the need to have antennas which are constantly moving as the LEO satellite constellation moves meaning that ground equipment for LEO systems is much pricier. LEOs require electronically steerable antennas which are capable of tracking multiple satellites passing overhead at the same time across the sky. These antennas are more expensive, posing a challenge to SpaceX’s and other operators’ plans to target the consumer market.
Previous attempts to create these near Earth constellations of satellites operating in Low Earth Orbits have been met with lot of skepticism, fading interest from investors and scaling down of initial plans owing to commercial non-viability. The most notorious example of these is Iridium, a constellation of 66 satellites built by Motorola in the late 1990s that was rescued from the verge of collapse by a group of investors led by a former airline executive. The company had to drastically scale back its plans, restructure and shift gears to providing emergency communications. Iridium’s LEO constellation is one of a small handful of such systems currently in operation, generally focused on the enterprise market. More recently, British-based OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 restructuring in March after its backer, Japan’s SoftBank, declined to put up fresh capital. The company had put 74 of its planned 648 satellites into orbit before seeking bankruptcy protection, but has since found new owners – the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Enterprises.
Further, on the technical side, many analysts caution that the potential market may not be large or lucrative enough for LEO companies to recoup their sizable investments. The U.S. telecom regulator FCC, said in a report it doubts satellite operators will be able to keep latency under 100 milliseconds, even with low-orbit satellites. That means SpaceX and other LEO companies could have a tough time getting access to an FCC fund aimed at supporting rural broadband projects. Analysts also doubt the commercial viability citing the low incomes in rural areas.
The low Earth orbit region is already heavily used by scientific, remote-sensing and telecom satellites as well as the International Space Station (ISS). A large scale increase in the number of satellites would increase the risk of space collisions and the ensuing multiplication of debris — in the worst-case scenario, it could render the LEO and near-space environment unusable.