Satellite constellations at a crucial turning point, by Stefan Barensky


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For six years, and the presentation of OneWeb projects by Greg Wyler and Starlink by Elon Musk, the space world is living in tune with the development of “mega-constellations”, presented at will as a new El Dorado and the solution to all global connectivity problems. This period also corresponds to the collapse in demand for geostationary satellites and, as a corollary, to that of the market for launches for them, which had been the heyday of the Ariane family since the mid-1980s.

Ultimately, these gigantic constellations of satellites in low orbit, representing on their own approximately four to ten times the number of satellites which previously gravitated in near-Earth space, are supposed to bring broadband to the entire surface of the planet. , including at sea and in the air. By reducing the “digital divide” between urban and rural areas, developed and emerging countries, they should be the key to the digital economy of tomorrow.

Colossal sums have been invested to change the way satellites are made and launched. Today, OneWeb Satellites’ plant in Florida, backed by Airbus, has the capacity to deliver two satellites per day, while SpaceX’s in suburban Seattle would produce four. And the “cluster” launches of its own satellites constitute the bulk of Elon Musk’s Falcon rocket activity.

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The juicy broadband market in planes and boats

With its latest launch on October 14, the OneWeb constellation now has 358 satellites in orbit, or 55% of its planned full deployment. But already, a first version of the service will be able to be opened. First in Alaska, in the middle of the arctic winter, to immediately test the capabilities and robustness of the system. This is not limited to satellites and will also have to prove the quality of its terminals and connection stations that will connect them to the global Internet, which itself remains terrestrial. Then the service will be quickly extended to Canada and the United Kingdom. In 2022, it will open in India and then in the rest of the world when the deployment of the constellation is completed.

For its part, SpaceX displays 1,674 satellites on the counter of its constellation Starlink. Of the 1,789 launched since May 2019, 115 have returned to the atmosphere and a dozen more are said to be on the verge of doing the same. Despite the frenzy of launches we have witnessed for two years, the current constellation represents only 38% of the 4,408 satellites initially planned – before an extension to nearly 12,000! But as it is in fact a staged architecture of several constellations distributed between 540 and 570 kilometers of altitude, a first global coverage with 1440 satellites is already complete. SpaceX therefore launched its Starlink service in “beta version” in October 2020 in the United States and Canada, and claims nearly 160,000 users. The operational sales department should be opened very soon.

Everything is therefore likely to be played out in the coming months. Will the offer presented meet expectations? Will it be competitive in the face of those that the geostationary satellite operators continue to offer and improve? They compete fiercely with their new rivals in the juiciest market: broadband in airplanes and ships. The other big market, that of the Internet for the poorest, remains hazardous, because they are generally insolvent.

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On the financial side, OneWeb raised $ 2.7 billion for its project and escaped a first bankruptcy. SpaceX figures remain more opaque, but nearly 9.4 billion have been raised in four years. The breakdown of these sums between Starlink and the Starship shuttle project is unknown. Making these investments profitable will take time. Let us remember that, at the end of the 1990s, the first constellations for mobile telephony had gone bankrupt, swallowing up more than $ 4 billion. This had undermined investment in space for several years. In the coming months, funding for other constellation projects, those of Lightspeed (Telesat) and Kuiper (Amazon), which remain to be produced and launched, will therefore be crucial. The gamble on mega-stellations has not yet been won.


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