Since the start of the spaceage, more than 8, 800 objects have been launched into Earth’s orbit.
But in a few years, that number could increase significantly.
Private companies plan to launchtens of thousands of satellites into space to beam internetto customers on Earth.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone hasannounced plans to launch 42, 000 satellites as part ofits Starlink internet project.
If this happens, SpaceX will, byitself, be responsible for about a fivefold increase in the numberof spacecraft launched by all of humanity.
Technically, a satellite refers toany object that orbits another, larger object in space, likethe Earth orbiting the sun.
But when we talk about satellites, we usually think about manmade satellites.
The first manmade satellitelaunched into space was called Sputnik and it was aboutthe size of a beach ball.
This is Russia onOctober 4th, 1957.
On the launching padis Sputnik Assembly First.
Freely translated to mean ‘travelingcompanion to the Earth.
‘ The Soviet Union is launchingthe first Earth satellite.
Sputnik signaled the beginningof the space race.
And since then, we’ve been launchingmore and more objects into orbit.
Now, companies such asSpaceX, Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb want to launch thousands of satellitesto make what they call megaconstellations.
A megaconstellation is a networkthat has hundreds, or even thousands of satellites all orbitingand working together in a complete system.
The reason thesecompanies are pursuing these megaconstellations comes down toessentially two factors.
One is that the cost ofhardware for these types of satellites has come down and they’veshrunk in size considerably.
And the second is because there’san increasing demand for data all around the world.
So providing high-speed data to anypoint on earth is an increasingly valuable asset.
Satellites that provide internet arenot necessarily a new idea.
Companies like Hughes Network Systemsand ViaSat are already beaming internet to rural parts ofthe planet that are not served by fiber cable connections.
About 49 percent of global householdsare still not connected to the internet.
And these arethe people that traditional satellite companies have tried to reach.
Today, there are only asmall number of consumer internet offerings over satellite.
They tend to be more expensive andthey also tend to have fairly low numbers of users.
In the United States, there areonly about 2 million customers out of our more than ahundred million households that utilize satellite internet.
One big issue with currentsatellite networks has been latency.
Traditional satellites orbit very faraway from the Earth.
And that distance increases theoverall latency in the network.
Latency is the responsivenessof the network.
So if you are streamingsomething online, it’s how quickly something loads or howsmoothly it runs.
Most internet satellites todayoperate in what’s called ‘geostationary orbit, ‘ which isaround 36, 000 kilometers above Earth’s surface and remain fixedon top of one area.
But the satellite systems thatSpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat are proposing will operate in whatis called ‘low Earth orbit, ‘ or between 180-2, 000 kilometersabove Earth’s surface.
In theory, this should cut downon the latency issues, with speeds up to 20 timesfaster than current GEO satellites.
But to get the same coveragewith LEO satellites, you need more of them.
The speed of transmissionof light in fiber is 40 percent slower than it isin air or vacuum.
So in fact, you can builda quite extensive low Earth orbit satellite network and havevery fast communications capability because they’re lower.
You actually need more of themto cover an effective area, right? They just can’t see allthe parts of the Earth.
So our higher orbiting satellites usedto be able to get away with a much smaller numberof actual orbiting vehicles, whereas these new, lower earth orbitconstellations do require more.
However, there’s more toit than that.
They also need tohave adequate power.
And if they’re going to providelots of people with connectivity, they need to havelots of capacity.
Hence, you need moresatellites to do that.
Whether having, you know, 10, 20thousand or more satellites orbiting is warranted for any of these, is still yet to be seen.
Satellites still need something backon Earth to receive their signals.
Beyond building thesatellites for these megaconstellations, these companies will alsohave to invest in heavy amounts of infrastructureon the ground.
That will look like thousands oreven millions of antenna all around the world to receive thesignal from the satellites and distribute it to consumerson the ground.
Plans to offer internet from spacemay sound familiar as both Facebook and Google have considereddeveloping these kinds of satellites before.
But Facebook hasn’t announced anythingin over a year since talking about itsAthena satellite.
And Google is one of themain investors in SpaceX’s system.
So they’re expected to look veryclosely at how Starlink is developed.
The topcompanies pursuing megaconstellations are tech giants SpaceXand Amazon, as well as satellite builders OneWeband Telesat.
The leader in this category, at least by quantity of satellites launched, is SpaceX, as they’velaunched 120 of their Starlink satellites so far this year and areset to launch another 60 very soon.
And we haveconfirmation of deploy.
You can hear theteam in the background.
This is an incrediblemoment for SpaceX.
You can see those flat-packedStarlink satellites slowly gliding away from the topof the second stage.
This is the highest number ofsatellites that SpaceX has ever deployed in a single time.
SpaceX’s utilization of itsrenewable Falcon 9 rocket dramatically decreases the cost ofsending satellites into space.
FCC documents show that SpaceXexpects Starlink to become operational once at least800 satellites are deployed.
The main value of Starlinkis providing low latency, high bandwidth accessto sparse and moderately sparse, like arelatively low density areas.
It’s probably able to servelike three to five percent of people in the world.
SpaceX beganwith the idea to launch 12, 000 satellites.
But in October 2019, the company requested permission for an additional 30, 000.
SpaceX has also put in a request withthe FCC for up to 1 million Earth stations, which end-usercustomers will utilize to communicate with its satellites.
Air Force is alsotesting Starlink’s satellites on its military planes and has sofar reported favorable results.
SpaceX has said that it willbegin offering internet service by 2020.
Hot on SpaceX’s heelsis OneWeb, which is already building its own satellites, havinglaunched six earlier this year.
We’ve done a joint venturewith Airbus and we have a factory at Cape Canaveral and we’vereally set up a supply chain and we’re using the same satelliteover and over again to populate our system.
And we’re going to produce 650for the first layer of capacity, which will befor global coverage.
But we’ll go all theway up to 2, 000.
Like SpaceX, OneWeb has its ownset of big name backers, including Softbank and Britishbusiness magnate Richard Branson.
OneWeb says each of its satellitescost about $1 billion to produce.
But unlike SpaceX, OneWebmust depend on Russian-built, Soyuz rockets tolaunch its satellites.
Unlike OneWeb and SpaceX, Amazonhas yet to launch any satellites, and is early indeveloping, as it’s still seeking regulatory approval for itsproject Kuiper Network.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans tolaunch a total of 3, 236 satellites into low-Earth orbit.
Back in April 2019, Amazon hiredthe former leader of SpaceX’s satellite program to run ProjectKuiper after Musk fired him.
According to reports, Musk had becomefrustrated with the pace of Starlink’s development.
Though it’s behind on buildingsatellites, Amazon already has a head start onground infrastructure.
In November 2019, the company announcedAWS Ground Station, a new business unit that will buildtwelve satellite facilities around the world to provide the vitallink needed to transmit data to and from satellites in orbit.
Plus, although technically a differentcompany, Jeff Bezos’ , Blue Origin would be theobvious choice to launch these satellites.
Also in the mixis Canadian satellite builder Telesat, which has received significantinvestment thus far but hasn’t launched anysatellites yet.
They’re negotiating with companiesthat would build their network, which is estimated tocost about $3 billion.
Astronomers are now very concernedabout this new, large constellations that arebeing launched.
The number that are plannedwould exceed all satellites launched to date.
And the real challengehere is not necessarily the number of new launches.
It’s the brightness, how brightthese things will be.
That they will saturate our detectorsand cause all sorts of difficulties inastronomical observing.
This image, taken from a telescopein Chile in November 2019, illustrates the concernsfrom astronomers.
The telescope, meant to see imagesof distant stars and galaxies, instead captured the light trailsof 19 Starlink satellites.
Some astronomers took to Twitterto express their concerns after SpaceX launched the first 60Starlink satellites back in May 2019.
summarizedAfter astronomers raised theseconcerns, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said in a tweet thathis company would look at how they can decrease the brightnessof these Starlink satellites.
SpaceX president, Gwen Shotwell, alsotold reporters in December 2019 that they plannedto address the issue.
SpaceX will put a special coating onthe bottom of one of the satellites on its third launch totest if that will decrease the satellite’s brightness.
We have monthly telecons withSpaceX engineers to discuss these things.
The LLST project in Chilealso has another set of telecons with them on a regularbasis to try to address these issues.
There’s been no action takenyet, but you know, we’re hopeful that thatsomething will change.
The company says that they’re committedto keeping the night sky dark.
These satellites couldalso impact radio astronomy.
In a statement following thefirst launch of Starlink’s satellites, the International AstronomicalUnion summarized their concerns saying, ‘despite notableefforts to avoid interfering with radio astronomy frequencies, aggregate radio signals emitted from the satellite constellationscan still threaten astronomical observations atradio wavelengths.
Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole orunderstanding more about the formation of planetary systems were onlypossible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radiosky from interference.
Another major concern is debris.
This summarized by a theorycalled the Kessler Syndrome, which posits that when two objects collidein space, they generate more debris that then collides withother objects, creating even more shrapnel and litter until the entiretyof Earth’s lower orbit is impassible.
This hypothetical scenario cameto life in February of 2009 when an inactiveRussian communications satellite Cosmo’s 2251 collided with anactive commercial communication satellite operated by .
-based Iridium Satellite.
The incident producedaround 2, 000 pieces of debris.
Debris is particularlyimportant considering that SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon have all saidthat their satellites would have a lifespan of only 5-7 years, whichis about half the lifespan of traditional satellites.
When the companies are finished withthe satellites or they fail in orbit, they plan to de-orbitthem, which means that the satellites would be intentionally pushedback into the Rarth’s atmosphere, where they wouldburn up during reentry.
One of the key questions facingthis industry is who regulates these megaconstellations.
And that’s a gray area.
We don’thave a mandate to approve or reject any space activityof any sovereign government or of any company.
Companies areunder the jurisdiction of the state in which they’re located.
It’s incumbent upon those states toput in place a system of authorization andcontinuing supervision.
In the United States, theauthority to regulate these satellites falls largely on theFederal Communications Commission.
The FCC is in chargeof radio frequency distribution and mitigating any debris that mayresult from these satellites.
Under Ajit Pai, the FCC hasbeen eager to work with these companies.
At a 1.
6 million foot view, you might saywe see an industry that is changing quickly in space.
And we are trying to makesure that our regulations change with it.
A Byzantine licensing andregulatory approval system could be a bottleneck that hurtsconsumers and innovators alike.
And that makes a difference becausenow, a satellite can be built in a matter of months, or weeks, or even days in some cases, and launched by a privateprovider on demand.
And that’s why under my leadership, the FCC has been committed to matching the tempo of theindustry that we regulate.
Our space agenda involves cuttingred tape and giving green lights.
In the same speech, Pai promisedthat the FCC would do a comprehensive review of its orbitaldebris rules to address recent market developments.
regulators also include theAir Force, the FAA, and in some cases, NOAA.
The Air Force maintains the officialcatalog of objects on orbit that the United States usesto avoid conjunctions and close approaches on orbit.
The FAA controls the launch licenses, and if you have a camera looking down on it, then youwould need a license from the National Oceanic andAtmospheric Administration, NOAA.
The connectivity market around theworld is certainly well north of a trillion dollars.
Of course, you have to look atwhat the addressable market is for each of these companies.
They won’t be competing very effectivelyin many cases with your local mobile phone provider or maybeyour fiber to the home provider if you’re lucky enough tolive in one of those areas.
But for areas where there aren’t alot of good options or maybe no options today, this is goingto be an attractive opportunity.
However, the caution is thatthere really is a limit to what many people in theworld can pay for internet.
You know, if you live in anarea where you lack clean water or maybe don’t have a consistentfood supply, having internet service may not beyour first priority.
We’re going to work first onthe verticals where there are people right now willing to pay a lot.
In airplanes and on boats.
And then we’re alsoworking with partners.
And those partners are governmentsand they’re also terrestrial mobile operators that wantto extend their networks.
And then when we think about whatwe’re trying to do as our social mission, which is to connecteveryone, I mean, the best sort of line about thecompany is, OneWeb one world.
We want everybodyto be connected.
Still, some more established satellitecompanies are not buying into the hype oflow Earth orbit megaconstellations.
ViaSat currently serves around600, 000 residential customers in the U.
and Europe andis launching a new geostationary satellite that it expects to bein service globally by 2022.
The reason that we’ve focused on GEOsis that GEOs seem to be able to deliver more bandwidth andmore speed at lower cost, and that’s what our end users want.