What do satellite constellations mean for the space industry?

by | 23 Oct 2023

As is the case with most things in the space industry, satellite constellations have been brought into the headlines recently by the actions of SpaceX. On paper, they offer low-latency internet anywhere in the world at a reduced cost by taking advantage of the economy of scale and launching thousands of satellites into Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). Funnily enough, constellations as a concept are nothing new, defined as: “2 or more satellites working together in a system”. This has been in place for many years making technology such as GPS possible however it is the shear scale of these ‘mega constellations’ that has been attracting attention.

Starlink's success

SpaceX has set the precedent with Starlink which is their answer to the worldwide broadband conundrum and has so far been a triumph at least where engineering is concerned. To date they have launched over 4 and a half thousand satellites into orbit, all flying on their own launch vehicles (usually a trusty Falcon 9). Putting it in context, Starlink accounts for more than half of all satellites in orbit today. The enormous logistical triumph of Starlink has catalysed the industry into action with existing multinationals as well as dedicated start-ups both chasing the potentially huge profits on offer. Successful ‘mega constellations’ have been valued in the billions of pounds meaning contracts to manufacture and support this infrastructure lie in the tens if not hundreds of millions.

A breakdown of the current satellites in orbit highlighing Starlink’s success – via Visual Capitalist

The best of the rest

Despite all this however, there have been no schemes which have come close to hitting the heights set by SpaceX, unfortunately a common theme in the commercial space landscape. The primary reason for this appears to be the logistics, especially surrounding launch of the satellites into LEO. Take for example Amazon’s Project Kuiper which aims to have over 3000 satellites as part of its own mega constellation. To achieve this, Amazon have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on booking launches primarily with ULA, Blue Origin and ArianeSpace. Of these 3 launch companies, ULA and ArianeSpace have yet to fly their next generation rockets which will carry Kuiper’s payload (Vulcan Centaur and Ariane VI respectively) and Blue Origin has yet to even conduct an orbital launch as a company.  At the time of writing, just two project Kuiper prototypes have launched in October of 2023 on an Atlas V. None of these facts bode well for the tech giant’s latest venture as according to their licence with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), half of the planned 3236 satellites must be in orbit by 2026. To achieve this, Amazon would have to launch at a cadence never seen before, an unlikely feat considering none of their proposed launch services are likely to fly before the end of this year.

The first Kuiper prototypes launching on an Atlas V, Oct 6 2023 – via Amazon

European struggles

An example of a mega constellation closer to the UK is OneWeb who have had a tumultuous history involving bankruptcy in 2020 and a more recent acquisition by Eutelsat. Their operations were dealt a significant blow by the ongoing war in Ukraine with a number of their satellites being stranded behind Russian lines when the conflict broke out. Since then, commercial access to any Russian owned Soyuz rockets has been non-existent and, with the delay to Ariane VI’s development, Europe has been left without launch services for the foreseeable future. For a system so reliant on regular, accessible launch vehicles, this is obviously a catastrophic scenario for any constellations based on the continent.

    The down sides

    Thus far we have only discussed the difficulties in actually constructing a mega constellation. An important aspect worth looking at is the ramifications should these schemes be successful because the overall sentiment has not always been positive. These programs have come under fire from opponents for two primary reasons:

    Astronomy – The sheer scale of the mega constellations has begun threatening astronomer’s view of the night sky with research recently being obstructed for the first time ever. While this is only a minor issue now, if projects like Starlink or Kuiper become fully operational as planned, the number of man-made satellites in orbit will increase tenfold. This poses a very real risk of jeopardising a spectacle which has captivated and inspired humanity for thousands of years.

    Debris – Increasing the number of objects in LEO by such a margin actively opposes the efforts of companies such as Astroscale who are attempting to tackle the issue of space debris. When we as a species are looking to grow our presence in orbit through programs such as NASA’s Commercial Destinations in LEO, it won’t be long before having tens of thousands of satellites occupying the same orbits as space stations will put human lives at risk. Space debris is going to be one of the largest challenges to deal with when in space, especially as we seek to establish a foothold outside of our atmosphere and directly contributing to the issue is a short-sighted move on the part of constellation planners.

    A computer rendering of all the tracked objects currently in orbit, 95% of which are considered space debris (i.e. non-functional man-made objects) – via NASA

    It's not all bad

    All of this isn’t intended to dissuade a supplier from entering the supply chain of a satellite constellation nor does it mean we should begin boycotting Starlink Wi-Fi, and it does have to be said there are many undeniable benefits which can come from these programs. The scale of production required to get a constellation up and running is greater than any seen before in the industry and has trickle down effects which could supercharge the growth of the space economy and enhance our collective manufacturing capabilities immensely. In addition, the cause of making high-speed internet accessible to underdeveloped regions is undoubtedly just and will aid many third-world countries in joining the digital age. The final judgement is ultimately up to you on whether these constellations are good or bad for humanity however unless the right legislation is put in place surrounding the overcrowding of satellites in LEO, the market will naturally follow profit, whether that impacts our future in space or not.