With more people than ever working from home in a drastic life-changing year, demand for high-speed, low-latency Internet connectivity has never been higher. LEO satellite constellations promise to provide this connectivity, affordably, across the globe.
Amy Saunders, Editor, NewSpace International
Satellite constellations have been big news for decades now, providing essential services from GEO, MEO and LEO. The Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation, established in 1993, is one of the oldest and most successful to date; 24 satellites orbiting in six planes 20,180km above the Earth deliver essential geolocation services to this day.
Constellation operator stalwarts such as Iridium and Globalstar have made great successes of their constellations over the years. Both provide essential voice and data communications services globally, with Globalstar making later forays into IoT applications. The two companies have both moved beyond their initial constellations onto newer, refreshed generations as needed, proving to doubters that there is a strong business case for targeted satellite constellations for specific applications.
In recent years, as satellite technology has become increasingly advanced and miniaturised, we’ve seen a whole host of innovative new constellation proposals, the first of which are being built out as we speak. However, all is not going smoothly for these new enterprises, with financial hurdles appearing more often than we would like.
OneWeb emerges from Chapter 11 with a bang
One of the better-known planned LEO constellation operators, OneWeb, has released several big news items this year. OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture with Airbus, is shooting for a 648-strong satellite constellation intended to deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity.
In a unique roller-coaster adventure, OneWeb went from the rising star of the LEO world to near end-ofgame in 2020, before finally emerging from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and achievement of all regulatory approvals with new investments of US$1 billion from a consortium of UK Government and Bharti Global. With this news, OneWeb announced 17 December 2020 as its ‘Return to Flight,’ with launches commencing and production lines brought back into service.
Despite its initial grand plans, January saw OneWeb announced the streamlining of its planned constellation from 47,884 to just 6,372 satellites, meaning that, after accounting for the satellites for which it is already licenced, the complete constellation will be around 7,000 - not the 48,000 we first heard about. Interesting news indeed, coming in the wake of the company’s commitment to its new owners; the UK Government and Bharti Global. According to a release, the ‘streamlining activities highlight OneWeb’s plan for global connectivity services and for future generations and possibilities for the network.’ Just a couple of days after, OneWeb announced that it had secured additional funding from Softbank and Hughes, bringing its total funding to US$1.4 billion.
In March, OneWeb confirmed the successful launch of all 36 satellites by Arianespace, bringing its total onorbit constellation to 146 satellites. This second – of a total of five – launch will enable OneWeb’s connectivity solution to reach all regions north of 50 degrees latitude by the middle of the year, with services expected to start by year-end. Said services will include coverage for the UK, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada. OneWeb then intends to make global services available in 2022.
“This is the second of our ‘Five to 50’ launch series and represents a key moment in OneWeb’s return,” commented Neil Masterson, OneWeb CEO. “The next launch in the series is scheduled for the end of April, as we continue our drive towards commercial service this year. OneWeb is rising to the challenge of our mission to provide connectivity to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Backed by exemplary shareholders, we are connecting the world.”
Further cementing its real-world applications, OneWeb recently demonstrated its turnkey satellitebased communications system to the US Department of Defense (DoD) at a live event conducted in front of service representatives from the US Space Command at OneWeb’s demonstration facility in Melbourne, Florida. During the event, OneWeb demonstrated, under test conditions, how an initial constellation of 110 LEO satellites and two ground user terminals provided data rates up to 500Mbps at latency levels as low as 32ms. The demonstration also illustrated the seamless handover of connectivity between multiple LEO satellites as they passed overhead. Additional demonstrations were planned for April to illustrate OneWeb’s capability to the US Special Operation Command (SOCOM) and US Central Command (CENTCOM).
“This hugely successful demo shows how Government customers including the US DoD can benefit from our innovative solution to support their rapidly evolving needs for low latency, high bandwidth, affordable and reliable global communications, enabled through innovative Internet Broadband coverage,” outlined Head of Government Sales at OneWeb, Dylan Browne. “We are going to be a core component in the global communications architecture of Governments, providing defense customers with secure, resilient and resilient voice and data communications anywhere in the World,” he added.
From a more holistic perspective, OneWeb continues to rapidly hire new bodies, with more than 200 new employees joining since Autumn 2020 despite the pandemic and near closure. The company is continuing to build its global ground station network and is pushing forward on user terminal development including a US$73 million contract with Intellian to provide compact, affordable user terminals for enterprise and government applications as well as a contract with Satixfy for an inflight terminal to deliver Wi-Fi on aircraft.
Telesat edges closer to finish line
One of the less well-publicised constellations comes from Canada’s Telesat, which announced its intention to launch a LEO constellation back in 2016. The Telesat Lightspeed constellation will consist of 120 Ka-band satellites in polar and inclines orbits of around 1,000km above the Earth, operating in six orbital planes. The planes comply with the Canadian Government’s Enhanced Satellite Constellation project, but also provide global coverage.
The plans have evolved in the years since, expanding to 298, 700kg satellites and 50 ground stations across the world in 2017. The constellation is expected to deliver 16-24Tbps of capacity, with 8Tbps dedicated to customers, and with latencies of 30-50ms. Phased array antennas on each satellite are combined with beam hopping technology to activate around 135,000 beams that can dynamically focus multiple Gbps of capacity into demand hot spots like large airports or major seaports. Almost 1,200 high-capacity optical links interconnect the satellites with multiple, highly resilient transport paths, creating a super-fast data superhighway in space. Last year the plan was again expanded to include more than 1,600 satellites. Lightspeed will support data processing in space, including full digital modulation and demodulation on the satellite, which when coupled with an end-to-end network operating system will eliminate gateway hops to enable to enable fast, secure, end-to-end data delivery.
Telesat launched its Phase 1 pathfinder test satellite in 2018, allowing customers and manufacturers to test transceiver equipment. Meanwhile, in 2019 Telesat contracted Blue Origin and Relativity Space for future constellation launches. The first Lightspeed satellites are expected to be launched in 2023 according to the latest reports, with commercial services commencing in the second half of 2023.
“The name Lightspeed underscores the essential speed advantages inherent to Telesat’s LEO design,” said Dan Goldberg, President and CEO of Telesat. “Lightspeed is the most technologically capable satellite communications network in history and exploits the latest advances in space-based data processing, laser communications, digital antenna technology and machine learning.”
Recent months have seen Telesat win new funding from the Government of Quebec, which will invest US$400 million into Lightspeed/ In return, Telesat will reportedly invest US$1.6 billion into Quebec both directly and through its supply chain, which will include a significant proportion of Lightspeed’s manufacturing and operations and 600 STEM jobs. Telesat has also been gearing up on the ground segment for its new constellation, working with SatixFy for landing stations and user terminals, and CloudOps for the development of Telesat Lightspeed Cloud, which will allow Telesat to deliver flexible services with cloud infrastructure, cloud-native data platforms and systems operations.
SpaceX connects rural homes in the US
SpaceX has been making headlines for years in the run up to its Starlink constellation, and not just amongst the aerospace community. The general public has become fascinated with all things SpaceX thanks to the showmanship of owner Elon Musk and his other fantastical projects.
SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is intended to provide a whole host of services, including high-speed low latency Internet connectivity to help bridge the digital divide. Some of the mass produced 260kg satellites will be sold for military, scientific or exploratory purposes. In 2019, SpaceX submitted filings to the ITU via the FCC in order to arrange spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites on top of the 12,000 already approved. It has been a busy few years for the company, launching 60 satellites at a time as of 2019, with a goal of reaching 1,584 in orbit by the end of this year.
Interestingly, the Starlink constellation is already coming into use. In December, the Wise County Public School District in rural Virginia announced that it would provide some families in the area – where 40 percent of teachers and pupils do not have Internet access at home - with Starlink connectivity to support remote learning. The Starlink units were deployed in January and more than 40 homes are now connected with high-speed Internet connectivity.
Addressing concerns from the space community around the sudden addition of thousands of new satellites in LEO, March saw NASA and SpaceX sign a special information-sharing agreement to ensure that Starlink satellites do not collide with other objects. The agreement takes the standard Conjunction Assessment (CA) process and allows deeper cooperation between the two entities. It is structured around NASA maintaining its planned trajectory with Starlink satellites set to automatically manoeuvre around NASA objects. In rare instances in which Starlink cannot manoeuvre, then NASA will do what it can to avoid collision. NASA will also provide technical support to Starlink, notably with regards to limiting photometric brightness, which is the reflectivity of a flat or uniform surface.
The Kuiper Project
Amazon established Kuiper Systems LLC in 2019 to deploy a constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites to deliver broadband satellite Internet connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world at an estimated cost of US$10 billion. The satellites will operate in 98 orbital planes in three orbital shells, one each at 590km, 610km and 630km above the Earth.
The Kuiper project has come on in leaps and bounds ever since, although is expected to take up to a decade to fully deploy all of its satellites. In December 2019, it emerged that Amazon had asked the FCC to waive the requirement to have applied by 2016 in order to achieve licensing, which was met with calls of rejection from SpaceX, among others. Kuiper Systems did eventually receive its license, which included a non-interference clause not previously applied to other constellation applicants.
In December, Project Kuiper hit another key milestone when it unveiled a high-level overview of its low-cost flat panel antenna with Ka-band phased array technology. The 30cm antenna operates at 17-30GHz and is expected to support 400Mbps of throughput with a fivefold cost reduction compared with other flat panel antennas.
“If you want to make a difference for unserved and underserved communities, you need to deliver service at a price that makes sense for customers,” said Rajeev Badyal, VP of Technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This simple fact inspired one of our key tenets for Kuiper: To invent a light, compact phased array antenna that would allow us to produce an affordable customer terminal. It’s incredible to see such a small form factor delivering this type of speed and performance.”
The Kuiper Project antennas use tiny antenna element structures overlayed one another – in contrast with being placed adjacent to each other as in other phased array antenna designs – which has never before been accomplished in Ka-band. The result is a smaller, lighter terminal offering higher bandwidth and better performance. The design uses a combination of digital and analogue components to electronically steer Ka-band beams toward satellites passing overhead.
It also emerged that Kuiper Systems will be launch-agnostic, not sticking solely with Amazon’s Blue Origin launch capabilities. A smart move considering the sheer magnitude of launches required to orbit such a constellation.
Facebook – In or out?
There’s been a lot of jumbled mis information doing the rounds on Facebook’s plans for space in recent years, thanks in part to the company’s cloak and dagger style of approaching satellite technologies.
The experimental Athena satellite was filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2018 under a company called PointView Tech LLC, formed in 2017 and which does not seem to have any notable online presence. It was eventually traced back to Facebook, however.
At 150kg, Athena weighs in at approximately the same as other constellation satellites but uses high-frequency millimetre-wave radio signals that promise faster data rates. PointView Tech estimates that its E-band system will deliver up to 10Gbps down and 30Gbps up, providing fixed and mobile broadband access in unserved and underserved areas, according to the FCC application. Part of Athena’s two-year mission is to test the technical barriers of using E-band in orbit – these high frequency millimetre waves are prone to absorption from air or water particles. Three ground stations – a teleport near Venture, California, the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, and a business park in Northridge, California – were specified in the application.
In September 2020, Facebook confirmed that it now operates an experimental satellite, which rode to orbit in a rideshare mission courtesy of Arianespace. The entity has stressed that it is not planning to become a provider of satellite connectivity or to launch constellation but has not provided any more information. Facebook has previously stated its belief in satellite technology to enable the next generation of broadband infrastructure to help bridge the digital divide.
For now, it looks like Facebook or PointView Tech will remain out of the constellation business, but as we all know, all things change with time.
A done deal?
The way many of these would-be constellation operators have been talking, you would assume that the upcoming influx of small satellites delivering high-speed connectivity across the globe was a done deal. But that’s not strictly speaking true. Significant concerns have been raised about this new wave of satellite mega-constellations, most of which are caused by the sheer volume of new satellites in the works:
- Astronomy: With tens of thousands new manmade objects in the night sky, terrestrial astronomers, including ground-based detection of atmospheric chemistry, would be hindered.
- Orbital debris: The addition of so many new satellites into MEO and LEO comes with increased opportunity for collision, particularly since most small satellites do not have a great deal (if any) of on-board propulsion technology. Moreover, most satellites in MEO and LEO have no or ineffective end-of-life plans, with many being left to decay into lower orbits. In contrast, the majority of GEO satellites are moved safely into an outer graveyard orbit so that they do not interfere with other satellites or contribute to problematic debris.
- Shielding effect: Satellites in lower orbits travel between geostationary orbit and Earth, creating a shielding effect whereby signals between GEO and Earth may be disrupted. This has not been a challenge with the still relatively small number of satellites in MEO and LEO, but in the years to come, this may change.
- Ethics: Is it even ethical for a very small number of companies to change the night sky’s appearance so drastically?
Action groups, collaborations and general protesters are working tirelessly to gain better transparency and visibility of all the impacts of these constellations, should they come into existence.
Despite the concerns, the need for high-speed, low-latency Internet connectivity have never been clearer than it is today, and it is this demand that is being targeted by all the new and planned satellite constellations. While GEO satellites have proven their worth time and time again, the lower latency and higher user speeds being promised by LEO constellations renders them better suited for mobile connectivity. With millions of people forced into working from home with no warning at the start of 2020, broadband Internet access has gone well and truly from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have’ for people across the globe. For those of us with already acceptable home Internet speeds, the change was tough but manageable, but for those without accessible broadband or the means to acquire it due to location or price, life became very difficult indeed.
With the global need for broadband Internet access well-established and stronger than ever before, the price point is a tricky matter. Is it really possible for such a service to be delivered, from space, at comparable prices to fibre or other terrestrial sources, while also allowing for adequate profit for the operators? This is a sticking point for many, particularly given the recent failings of some planned constellations on financial grounds.
Naturally, the current market players need to remain wary of becoming another LeoSat; the Luxembourg based company planned to launch 78-108 satellites into 1,400km orbit and actively worked towards that goal over 2013-2018. Despite promised investments from Hispasat and SKY Perfect JSAT, LeoSat ceased operations in November 2019 due to insufficient capital investment, and of course failed to meet its ITU January 2021 deadline for launching the first of its satellites. OneWeb, too, has survived by the skin of its teeth only thanks to a buyout, and with a much pared-down constellation plan to boot
Satellite Evolution - NewSpace International - May/June 2021