The Rise of Mega Constellations: How Low Earth Orbit Satellites are Reshaping Global Connectivity

On October 12, 2022, an article disseminated in Science periodical divulged that between 2017 and 2022, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) had received in excess of 25 proposals for communication satellite constellations, encompassing a million low-orbit satellites and applications for orbital and spectrum utilization.

Per the UCS satellite database as of early 2023: the cumulative count of active satellites orbiting the globe is 6,718, of which 5,937 inhabit low-earth orbits. It strains credulity to envision that by 2030, this figure will burgeon nearly two hundredfold. Publicly available information attests that amid the burgeoning low-Earth satellite congestion, satellites affiliated with Musk’s SpaceX, colloquially known as Starlink, execute myriad anti-collision maneuvers each month, thereby exacerbating apprehensions concerning the safety of low-Earth orbits.

Within this congested celestial expanse, the allocation of satellite orbits and frequency bands assumes a mantle of strategic resource management. International consensus dictates that the allotment of satellite frequency and orbit resources primarily adheres to a “first come, first served” paradigm, wherein developed nations, by virtue of their precedence in satellite launches, command priority positions, consequently fostering congestion within premium orbits and frequencies.

For the layperson, a paramount inquiry looms: will the pristine celestial panorama still grace our sight? Yet, the gravity of this predicament transcends this aesthetic concern.

“The Spatial Enclosure” Spans a Century

As the preeminent and venerable international telecommunications institution, the ITU’s historical lineage traces back to the 19th century. Following the laying of the inaugural transatlantic telegraph cable, the surge in demand for international and intercontinental telegraph communications ensued. Given the incongruity among the telegraph systems of diverse nations, the signal, upon crossing borders, necessitated conversion into the recipient country’s telegraph code for continuous transmission, thereby substantially augmenting the cost of information conveyance.

To facilitate seamless information transmission and dismantle information barriers, representatives from over 20 nations convened for the inaugural International Telegraph Conference, establishing the International Telegraph Union and endorsing the International Telegraph Convention. As advancements in long-distance signal transmission technology unfolded, evolving from telephones to radios, the ITU shouldered an increasingly intricate array of responsibilities. In the 1927 Washington Conference, the ITU officially acquired the authority to allocate frequency bands for diverse radio services across nations. By 1932, the International Telegraph Union underwent a nomenclatural transformation, assuming the appellation of the International Telecommunication Union.

Post World War II, with the advent of the United Nations and the concomitant effectuation of the United Nations Charter, the ITU merged with the United Nations on November 15, 1947, relocating its headquarters to Geneva the ensuing year. Subsequent to the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s pioneer man-made satellite, “Sputnik 1,” in 1957, the United States inaugurated the era of satellite communications in 1958 with the deployment of the “Skoll,” the world’s maiden communications satellite capable of serving as a relay station beyond Earth.

The allocation and coordination of frequency and orbit resources for satellite communications globally are naturally governed by the ITU, a permanent agency of the United Nations, promulgating numerous international standards and regulations. For instance, the C, Ku, and Ka frequency bands are designated for global satellite communication service providers.

War and Peace in the Celestial Canopy

In June 1982, against the backdrop of global scrutiny, the Warsaw Pact Group orchestrated the “Anti-Nuclear Raid” military exercise. Within this exercise, the Soviet army launched a target satellite and a military satellite colloquially termed a “satellite fighter” within a single day. Subject to remote control via ground signal instructions, these satellites swiftly altered their orbits multiple times, executing elaborate tactical maneuvers. Ultimately, their collision and subsequent detonation over West Germany captured the attention of the NATO alliance.

Preceding this event, both superpowers had developed space-based anti-satellite weaponry designed to interfere with or dismantle adversary satellite optoelectronic systems through high-energy laser irradiation. Throughout the Cold War epoch, satellite technology deviated from its initial purpose of information dissemination for the betterment of humanity. Satellites orbiting Earth metamorphosed into steel behemoths poised for action, with a considerable number harboring military applications destined for future conflicts.

Post the cessation of the Cold War, the fog of war temporarily lifted, leading to a transient reduction in satellite launches worldwide. As a multitude of military technologies, including satellite capabilities, transitioned to civilian applications, the launch of civilian and commercial satellites emerged as a burgeoning trend—exemplified by the “Meridian Satellite Positioning System,” initially devised for monitoring Soviet submarines. Its successor models have achieved household recognition: GPS.

Satellites, akin to resolute steel behemoths, continue to serve military purposes.

The Cosmic Disruptor: Musk’s Interference

In 2015, the celestial sphere accommodated nearly 1,500 satellites in orbit. Throughout the initial 15 years of the 21st century, satellite launches remained an exorbitantly costly endeavor, until the advent of a disruptor named Elon Musk. On December 21, 2015, SpaceX, helmed by Musk, executed the maiden launch of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, achieving the vertical recovery of the first-stage rocket—a groundbreaking feat. This milestone triumph fundamentally reshaped the trajectory of spaceflight, gradually rendering satellite launch costs akin to “cabbage prices.”

Antecedent to the triumph of “Falcon 9’s” successful recovery, data indicates that the launch cost of the U.S. space shuttle approximated $450 million, with a carrying cost of approximately $20,000 per kilogram. In comparison, the launch cost of Russia’s “Soyuz” rocket stood at around $50 million, with a carrying cost of roughly $7,000 per kilogram. The European “Arian” rocket incurred a launch cost of about $165 million, with a carrying cost of approximately $10,000 per kilogram. China’s “Chang 3B” rocket commanded a launch cost of approximately $70 million, with a carrying cost of about $6,000 per kilogram. India’s polar orbit disposable rocket, while achieving minimalistic costs in a singular launch, still paled in comparison to the recyclable “Falcon 9,” capable of up to five launches. The single launch cost of “Falcon 9’s” “No. 1” model was $12.4 million, accompanied by an astonishing carrying cost of $563 per kilogram. The unparalleled cost-effectiveness of “Falcon 9” synchronously aligned with SpaceX’s ambitious “Starlink” initiative.

The era of low-earth orbit satellites materialized in 2015 when SpaceX unveiled the “Starlink” initiative—envisioning the launch of 12,000 low-Earth orbit communication satellites to construct an expansive constellation communication network. Despite skepticism from industry insiders, SpaceX surmounted challenges related to satellite model production, reusable rockets, and one-rocket multi-satellite technology in record time, thereby solidifying its status as the foremost and triumphant low-earth orbit constellation system to date.

On the 9th of March in the year 2022, at the Cape Canaveral Launch Site 40, the “Falcon 9” rocket gracefully transported 48 satellites into the predetermined orbit. As of now, “Starlink” has deployed a formidable fleet of 2,282 satellites. In the year 2023, SpaceX’s cumulative launch payload is anticipated to constitute an impressive 80% of the world’s rocket launch loads.

The ambitious “Starlink” initiative foresees the launch of an extensive array of 42,000 satellites. The current orbital altitude hovers between 540 and 570 kilometers. In subsequent phases of the project, ultra-low orbit satellites, positioned at an altitude ranging from 335 to 346 kilometers, will be inaugurated to establish a hybrid constellation. “Starlink” is designed to furnish signal coverage in mid- and low-latitude regions through an abundance of tilt-orbit satellites. Furthermore, it will employ polar-orbiting satellites to enhance signals in high-latitude areas and refine inter-satellite connections. Upon the completion of the “Starlink” venture, it will be sufficiently equipped to support upcoming technological aspirations, such as 6G and the Internet of Things.

Following the initial triumph of “Starlink,” it triggered a substantial proliferation of communication network constellations. Nations and corporations endowed with aerospace capabilities promptly initiated their constellation plans. The epoch of low-orbit communication satellites, a pivotal era, is imminent.

Owing to the partial mastery of core technologies by certain developers, the fortunes of each project invariably diverge. For instance, Amazon, the preeminent e-commerce entity globally, secured the right to employ the “Falcon 9” to deploy its constellation, “Kuiper,” with resounding success.

However, not all ventures unfold seamlessly. The British firm OneWeb, aspiring to launch 648 satellites for the comprehensive completion of its constellation network, encountered an unfavorable twist of fate. Opting for Russia’s “Soyuz” rocket to execute the satellite launch mission, the plan proceeded smoothly until the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in early 2022.

Owing to the Western collective sanctions against Russia, OneWeb found itself ensnared in the fissures, compelling a suspension of the plan. When OneWeb ultimately secured the lease rights to Falcon 9, the launch timeline had already been deferred by eight months. By March of 2023, the final tranche of OneWeb satellites in this phase will be successfully propelled into orbit by an Indian rocket. The OneWeb constellation signal is poised to encompass the entirety of the globe, thereby establishing itself as the world’s second-largest constellation network.

Countries such as Germany, France, Canada, and Russia have fervently cultivated constellation network frameworks. China, too, has enshrined satellite Internet as a new infrastructure and initiated projects such as “GW-2,” “GW-A59,” “Hongyun Project,” and “Hongyan Constellation.” Low-orbit communication satellite projects, including the “Star Network Project,” have submitted orbit and spectrum applications for a staggering 13,000 satellites to the ITU.

As elucidated earlier, the ITU adheres to a “first come, first served” rule for satellite orbit and frequency band applications. With an upsurge in applications for low-Earth orbit satellites, which vie for scarce orbits and frequency bands, a fierce competition is inevitable.

In the year 2021, Rwanda, an African nation categorized as one of the least developed countries by the United Nations, caused a stir in the global industry by submitting applications to the ITU for two constellation plans encompassing over 300,000 satellites. Sources suggest that Rwanda lacks the requisite launch capabilities, and the actual entity behind the application is a French company. Most of these satellites, it is anticipated, will remain confined to the realm of blueprints.

In accordance with the ITU’s regulations implemented in 2019, constellation applicants are mandated to launch the inaugural satellite within seven years. A minimum of 10% of the first satellite is required to be launched within two years, 50% within five years, and the entire constellation must be completed within seven years. This stipulation implies that within seven years of declaration, the orbit and frequency band resources allocated to these satellites will be fully utilized.

This provision affords room for speculative applications, resembling the modus operandi of squatting on Internet domain names. Industry experts warn that although the expanse of low-Earth orbit is theoretically vast enough to accommodate millions of satellites, the escalation in interference and collisions between satellites poses a significant risk.

Given that the service life of low-orbit satellites is shorter than that of their high-orbit counterparts, the accumulation of decommissioned satellites and space debris is bound to escalate with the growing number of satellites in orbit. These remnants constitute a substantial security hazard to operational satellites. To address this concern, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has stipulated that operators must clear the original orbit of a defunct domestic satellite within five years, failure to comply with which incurs fines. However, this regulation has not been universally adopted.

Given the prevailing surge in satellite numbers, a vision of a dense and congested ballet in low-Earth orbit looms on the horizon.

Some applicants pursue satellite resources akin to the practice of squatting on Internet domain names.

The Future: The Tower of Babel in the New Era

Ancient scriptures recount in the narrative of “The Bible, Old Testament, and Genesis” that in a bygone era, humanity shared a common language and endeavored to construct the towering edifice known as the “Tower of Babel” that aspired to reach the heavens. To thwart this ambition, divine intervention bestowed upon humans disparate languages, leading to the collapse of the “Tower of Babel” as communication became unattainable.

Low-orbit communication satellite constellations, delivering internet services, obviate the need for dense ground base stations. They extend a helping hand to individuals residing in extreme environments or impoverished regions, facilitating access to high-speed networks and disseminating transformative scientific knowledge. They stand as a modern-day incarnation of the “Tower of Babel.”

In the contemporary world, the specter of war persists, and ideological conflicts have rendered peace elusive in certain quarters. The lopsided access to information emerges as a contributing factor. As per a 2023 report by the ITU, a mere 37% of people in Africa have access to the Internet, and one-third of residents in Asia and the Middle East remain unacquainted with Internet services.

It is the fervent wish that the evolution of low-Earth orbit communication satellites can serve to ameliorate this situation, fostering collaboration among factions with differing values. By redirecting their gaze beyond the enigmatic expanse of Earth, stepping out of the “cradle of the earth,” humanity can inscribe a new chapter in the cosmic saga of development.

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