There are a growing number of startups providing rocket and satellite services around the world. Low earth orbit satellites, also called LEO satellites, are a primary focus for these companies, with these satellites already accounting for the majority of satellite capacity.
The number of Earth-orbiting satellites has now surpassed 2,500, most of them low Earth orbiters. In general, they operate between 500km and 2000km above the earth’s surface.
SpaceX and Blue Origin invest heavily in LEO satellite production due to their excellent data transmission capabilities. They are easier to manufacture and smaller than satellites farther away.
Within a few years, Elon Musk plans to launch 42,000 Starlink satellites into orbit around the earth. Launches of their satellites always generate a great deal of excitement as they flit through the sky like a string of pearls.
Amazon’s application for the launch of more than 3,000 satellites into orbit was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2019, despite continuing concerns about mega-constellations.
And by the time OneWeb went bankrupt, 74 of the company’s internet satellites were already in orbit. Canadian, Russian, and Chinese players are also stepping up.
Defying Investor Fears
This satellite race may seem reminiscent of the companies’ attempts to provide global connectivity in the 1990s. Many satellite companies, including Iridium, Teledesic, and Odyssey, had grand plans. Although, due to high costs, all but Iridium have ditched their planned constellations, prompting investors to be overly cautious.
There have been many changes in the past twenty years, however. With satellite technology advancements and growing bandwidth demand, companies have developed creative business models to generate profits from connectivity.
The Stars Have Aligned
Why are satellite constellations of interest again? According to researchers, success may be imminent. This likelihood is driven by factors that are converging now that did not exist in the past.
Better spectrum usage – LEO concepts utilizing large amounts of Ka-band are being considered. Data rates are higher with these frequencies. Antennas are smaller, beams are narrower, and the security is better. The amount of data a system can deliver can also be expanded with increased spectral efficiency and spectrum recycling rates.
Higher throughput – The improvements in active antennas and processing, in addition to better spectrum utilization, result in greater performance per satellite, increasing constellation capability. Using LEO satellites, more and more beams can be deployed, with each beam delivering more and more power.
Better ground equipment – Using electronically steerable antennas (ESAs), companies can now shift beams, track and access satellites without moving the antenna. Additionally, these ESAs can be designed for modular assembly, which will allow manufacturers to produce the technology at economies of scale for greater reach and at a lower cost.
Advanced business models – There are more ways to make money off satellites compared to 60 years ago. Media and e-commerce companies have been acquiring satellites to develop content and distribution under their own roof.
A constellation provider that offers free internet access to their customers in exchange for more revenue elsewhere might take a similar approach. For example, a social network that offers free internet access is likely to have a higher user retention rate
What is the point of having so many satellites?
One major disadvantage of the low orbit is that the satellites quickly disappear and interrupt the radio link. Preventative measures should include satellites communicating wirelessly and transmitting data to other satellites in line of sight. The only way companies like SpaceX can cover almost the entire earth is by launching so many satellites into space.
However, despite the benefits of having an exponential supply of small satellites, advocates point to the downsides of the proliferation of LEO satellites. In the first place, no one knows for certain how many LEOs can exist before collision risks explode, and if a collision occurs, it can set off a chain reaction that increases future collision risks. There is no denying the massive improvement that LEO satellites will have on global internet access. However, only time will tell how these gigantic fleets will be managed and which satellite providers will persevere to become the most reliable and profitable ventures.