With such a rapid increase in the number of satellites launched annually, the space sector will face global challenges.
Looking up at the night sky through a telescope, we can witness patterns of stars that have been linked by astronomers over the centuries. These linked stars are attributed with characteristics, names, significances.
Now a new kind of pattern is emerging in the night sky. Where once only the constellations of stars shone above us, now constellations of satellites are being launched into space. These satellite constellations may just be the way of the future of global telecommunications.
What is a satellite constellation?
Artificial satellites orbit the globe; when they form a group and work together, these satellites become a constellation. The shared work capacity of a constellation of satellites creates a stronger data connection for phone and internet users on earth, regardless of where on the planet they are located. So a Youtuber uploading a video in Japan, a banker hosting a web conference, or anyone else using the internet in a myriad of ways can take advantage of faster and more reliable connectivity.
Satellite constellations are largely used for observation of the Earth and boosting global connectivity; 96% of the satellites orbiting Earth now are used for this purpose. But besides tracing the patterns of weather and views of Earth from above, they can also be utilized to observe activities in space. NASA has begun using CubeSats, a specific inexpensive lightweight type of satellite constellation, to further its studies of outer space, and aims to make this technology as widely available as possible across the globe.
Nearly one hundred corporations including Samsung and SpaceX have already announced plans to launch several satellite constellations with hundreds of individual satellites. Researchers anticipate that mini satellites, weighing less than 500 kg each, will become the norm. Developers are studying how to utilize AI and machine learning technologies to enhance the collaborative capabilities of these mini satellites. Among the many benefits of this technology: once they are launched into space, the satellites in each constellation will communicate with one another, largely independent of human intervention or maintenance.
The year 2020 could be renamed the “year of the satellite”. Nearly every single month in 2020, reports announced the approval of new satellite launches. The FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) in the United States confirmed enough potential launches that by 2030 there may be as many as 100,000 satellites in orbit.
New deals and developments continue to launch; Chinese private auto producer Geely was recently approved to begin producing satellites for self-driving cars. The satellites will sync to the self-driving cars’ navigation, communications, and connectivity capabilities. According to their press release, the automaker will begin manufacturing as soon as October, releasing more than 500 satellites each year.
The Chinese government’s decision in 2014 to allow private sector players to enter the previously forbidden space sector has lead to an abundance of private firms vying to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities of this manufactured space ecosystem.
In the United States, mega weather data collector ClimaCell has released plans for “Operation Tomorrow Space”: a constellation of active radar satellites providing highly accurate global weather monitoring. ClimaCell provides weather data to giant corporations from Uber Technologies to Delta Airlines and Amazon Web Services. It seeks to become “the largest weather enterprise in the world.”
With such a rapid increase in the number of satellites launched annually, the space sector will face global challenges. A huge amount of ground infrastructure will be required to coordinate launches and provide satellite monitoring and control. While mini satellites are increasingly prevalent- preferred for their increased flexibility and lower costs- there are still satellites ranging in size from nano (approximately the size of a watermelon) to large (as big as a house).
As more companies cash in on the space sector satellite game, the orbit will become increasingly crowded. Engineers will need to ensure that this proliferation of satellites in orbit does not lead to costly and destructive satellite crashes. Engineers will need to develop an infrastructure that prevents space traffic. Researchers suggest the solution to these potential problems can be found in end-to-end IP communications between satellites.
Some critics decry the lack of access for indigenous groups, whose view of the stars will be obstructed by the huge amount of satellites dotting the sky in the years to come. At the same time, the widespread broadband connection created by these same constellations can bring greater access to underserved communities, particularly in remote areas. The same tribes who will suffer from a lack of access to stars will benefit from increased access to the internet.
Others warn that the light pollution of these future satellites will obscure our views of the sky to such an extent that the field of astronomy will be negatively impacted- and space missions may also be affected.
Promise and Problems
While satellite constellations are quickly becoming the future of connectivity, there are clearly still a host of issues that need to be overcome. Engineers, scientists, astronomers, cultural researchers, and tech developers will need to work together to create a sustainable, efficient way of implementing this promising new technology.
As corporations move forward with their intended launch plans, there is no better time to research the challenges and possibilities of satellites than now: those artificial constellations will soon mesh with our view of the stars whether we are ready for them or not.