First came satellite communications, then came the internet. Decades later the two technologies have joined to shape the future of how humans communicate. Low-Earth-Orbit Satellites (LEOs) are an emerging development moving toward communication in outer space. Here’s a look at how LEO satellites and IoT devices are spreading in space to serve commercial and government stakeholders.
Satellite Constellations for Greater Connectivity
Today, there are thousands of satellites orbiting the earth. Some of them are government-owned, others are for commercial communication services. These satellites operate at 2,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface. The orbital period lasts from 84 to 127 minutes. LEOs must stay above 160 kilometers to avoid falling into a danger zone of rapid orbital decay.
Several satellite companies exist in belts orbiting Earth. Private company satellites tend to rest in fixed positions in the GEO belt, which is positioned much further out than the LEO belt. That’s why satellites in the GEO belt have much broader coverage.
One of the drawbacks to GEO satellites is that mobile antennas must point to them. Consequently, the signal weakens as the mobile antenna moves away from the satellite. But when large constellations work together, they provide more consistent global coverage. At 2,000 kilometers LEOs can detect weak signals, but they need to be part of a constellation with thousands of satellites to provide sufficient global coverage.
Keep reading: Race to Space: The Commercial Space Age Has Begun
NASA’s Role in Satellite Development
The federal government’s aerospace agency NASA has been working with satellite developers since the late 1950s. The agency’s current Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) develops and demonstrates satellites that are also capable of going on space missions. A NASA satellite program that aims to collaborate with universities is the Smallsat Technology Partnerships Initiative.
One consistent element in the evolution of LEO satellites and IoT devices is they keep getting smaller, which means an increasing number of satellites can share launch vehicles. They are both economical and capable of increasingly sophisticated functions. Smallsats can be integrated with numerous technologies, such as photography to take high-resolution images from space.
NASA’s definition of a small spacecraft is one with a mass of less than 180 kilograms. Other small spacecraft are identified by their size such as the following:
Minisatellite: 100+ kg
Microsatellite: 10-100 kg
Nanosatellite: 1-10 kg
Pictosatellite: 10g-1 kg
Femtosatellite: 1g-10 g
Growth of SpaceX and Competitors
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has a plan to build a network of 12,000 satellites for its Starlink project that will introduce ultra-high-speed internet to the world. It’s among several commercial players using LEOs to gain seamless global connectivity. A main competitor to SpaceX is LeoSat Enterprises, which aims to upgrade high-speed internet with less latency and more security. The company is working on an innovation that connects satellites with laser links within a constellation.
Various satellite companies are working on making internet more seamless through space. A major breakthrough for LEOs has been advances through small spacecraft and satellites called “smallsats”. These smaller satellites help cut costs on space missions and can be used for a wide variety of projects.
Future of Commercial Satellites
Industry experts believe the future will include constellations of very small satellites with short life cycles for short-term use. The current lifespan of the average satellite is 15 years. The pattern of smallsat evolution through today has been an increase of functions as size shrinks. These powerful data gathering and transmitting devices will help scientists learn more about Earth and how it relates to space.
Space communications are underway as 21st-century science begins to resemble last century’s science fiction, with LEO satellites and IoT devices capable of delivering broader data transmissions. Altogether, advancements in satellite communications will continue to increase the reliability of terrestrial networks for asset tracking, remote management, and other applications used by global businesses.