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Megaconstellations: Recipe for Disaster or Biggest Opportunity Yet?

Key players chat about the new satellites and their beneficiaries amid concerns and deployment challenges.

A handful of hot, young satellite communications companies harbor big plans to launch super-powerful, smaller satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), creating megaconstellations that will power every broadband application imaginable. But Bryan Hartin, executive vice president of marketing for Iridium, doesn’t seem too worried about competition or the potential for overcrowding.

“We were in LEO before LEO was cool,” says Hartin, who oversees Iridium’s global commercial business. “Today you have these megaconstellations like what SpaceX and OneWeb have planned. And we welcome them. We don’t view ourselves as competitors, but as complementary.”

Iridium has good reason to be excited. Over the last several years, the company has spent more than $3 billion on a massive undertaking — refreshing the company’s existing fleet of satellites with a new constellation known as Iridium Next, an architecture consisting of 66 small, interconnected mobile satellites (plus nine on-orbit spares and six ground spares), which will reportedly cover 100 percent of the Earth’s surface, including oceans and polar regions.

And Iridium is certainly not alone when it comes to thinking big: In October, SpaceX and OneWeb executives unveiled plans to launch megaconstellations of broadband satellites in LEO to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committees. While these organizations are a bit elusive about their big plans (case in point: SpaceX said it could not comment for this piece, and OneWeb was not able to respond in time), their presence at the public forum signified that they’re serious about moving forward. SpaceX’s goal, over the next five years, after testing and validation, is to deploy a constellation of 4,425 Ka- and Ku-band satellites; OneWeb’s plan is to start launching its first-generation constellation of roughly 900 satellites in 2019.

Since 2014, space industry consulting firm Northern Sky Research (NSR) has tracked $2.1 billion in investments for broadband megaconstellations (such as LeoSat and OneWeb), plus an additional $1.5 billion in SpaceX. Additionally, since 2016, NSR has tracked $23.7 million invested in satellite Internet of Things (IOT) startups.

Yet, within this enthusiasm for large, powerful LEO constellations and the applications they’ll deliver, the voices of caution are growing louder, tempering much of the fervor around pushing fleets of fresh satellites into the skies. Some of the biggest concerns orbit around the topic of space debris. Scientists worry that existing debris will destroy multiple satellites in a megaconstellation, and that pushing too many new constellations into orbit will amplify the likelihood of a catastrophic collision.

All of which raises questions about whether filling the skies with megaconstellations will create too much of a good thing. Most importantly, how will space accommodate all of these satellites without damaging the environment?

The Market for Mega

Satellite manufacturers and their partners envision a future where megaconstellations link terrestrial networks and satellites in LEO, which ultimately provides blanket coverage and optimal service at compelling price point. And while the threshold upon which a constellation becomes a megaconstellation is still up for debate, the potential for megaquestions is unquestioned, whether a large constellation comprises 75 or 4,000 smaller, lighter, self-propelling mobile satellites.

Driving the market for mega is a combination of innovation, dramatic reductions in the cost of materials and manufacturing and, of course, demand. As the demand for 5G broadband connectivity continues to grow, the opportunity for applications in residential, commercial and military sectors is expanding. Megaconstellations can bring high-speed Internet to villages in Congo, fill in the connectivity gaps for oil and gas enterprise, or support a high-speed banking network between Wall Street and Beijing.

“We see investors interested in the spectrum of applications — from broadband constellations to IOT constellations,” says NSR analyst Carolyn Belle. “A central vision behind these investments is the anticipated boost to the global economy once the entire world — both people and things — are connected.”

One of the younger companies in this space, LeoSat Enterprises, is positioning itself as filling the space between traditional satellite and fiber-optic networks. The five-year-old organization, which secured Sky Perfect JSAT as a key investor, is on target to complete $100 million in Series A funding in the first quarter of 2018, and plans to launch a laser-connected constellation of up to 108 LEO communications satellites between 2019 and 2022. These will power applications of interest to large commercial and government customers.

“From LEO, you can choose to do many things,” says Mark Rigolle, CEO of LeoSat. “We’re all about enabling business growth by providing large commercial customers in enterprise, energy, maritime and telecoms with previously unavailable levels of network performance and security combined with worldwide reach. We believe that the success of our constellation is predicated on the fact that our system was specifically designed to respond to customers who could not get from the terrestrial telecom and satellite industry what their business needed. LeoSat has built its business model around that and developed a unique constellation system for enterprise data which will serve not only a need that exists today, but with the growth of Big Data and cybersecurity, will certainly be in high demand in the future.”

Meanwhile there’s also the growing interest in IOT applications, such as tracking propane on shipping sensors, which smaller, low-power satellites in megaconstellations are ideally suited to support. While the bulk of IOT devices will be supported by terrestrial systems, satellite’s role will primarily be as a backup system and a gap filler for remote locations, says Belle. But for some applications satellite will be a critical piece of the architecture, she adds.

“The IOT space is one of our fastest-growing businesses, in terms of subscriber growth and revenue growth,” says Iridium’s Hartin. “You might think of IOT as everybody’s toaster connected to satellite, but really, it’s about empowering companies like Caterpillar, which makes this equipment that operates in remote parts of the world, like mines in Africa. If you have a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment out there, you want to know how it’s working.”

But while LEO possesses latency advantages, Steve Collar, soon to become SES’ CEO and current CEO of SES Networks, which operates its fleet of O3b mPower satellites in the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), says the cost of deployment is too prohibitive. SES plans to launch seven next-generation MEO satellites in 2021 to provide connectivity to 3 billion people who don’t have it. As Collar sees it, MEO is a superior alternative to LEO for the same applications.

“It’s not that megaconstellations are bad,” says Collar. “It’s more of the economics of the solutions, and whether they solve the problem of delivering services to some of the less-well off.”

Mega Clutter

With a few megaconstellations potentially set to launch around the same timeframe, concerns about increasing clutter in LEO are kicking into high gear. As scientists explain it, the math is simple: the more satellites enter space, the greater the risk of some kind collision.

“There will be collisions in the future,” says Hugh Lewis, one of the most high-profile space debris scientists and a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton in the U.K. “It’s like a hurricane. You know it’s coming, you just don’t know when.” The University of Southampton's debris simulation model, Debris Analysis and Monitoring Architecture to the GEO Environment (DAMAGE), offers scientists a glimpse of the worst-case scenario — whereupon a hypothetical large constellation operator disregards existing space debris mitigation guidelines, leading to series of collisions.

“It’s so bad, that our simulation models can’t handle it,” Lewis told Via Satellite. “When we tried to simulate the worst-case scenario, my computer crashed.”

Lewis is the first to admit that the worst-case scenario is improbable — yet it underscores the potential devastation resulting from too many megaconstellations. While the probability of a collision is low, the impact is significant: A bullet-size piece of junk flying at high speed knocked a crater into a European Earth Observation (EO) satellite a few years ago, while a 1,984-pound (900 Kg) non-operational Russian satellite collided with, and destroyed, one of Iridium’s communication satellites in 2009.

While international guidelines currently recommend that operators remove spacecraft from LEO within 25 years of the end of the life of the spacecraft, Holger Krag, the head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Space Debris Office, reportedly told attendees at 2017’s European Conference on Space Debris that only 60 percent of operators actually do that.

“The odds really are in our favor, but each one of those collisions generates more fragments,” says Lewis. “And more fragments means a faster collision rate.”

Preparing for Launch

Most of the space industry — especially the high-profile players in the megaconstellation business — is vocal about its commitment to good stewardship, and following recommendations from international regulatory agencies and scientists. There’s also promise in some of the new solutions being developed to help clean up space junk.

“If operators of large constellations apply simple thinking and measures, such as separating orbital planes in altitude, you never give them the opportunity to collide,” says Lewis. “You can also design the propulsion system better, and make sure the satellites don’t last in the environment a long time. If you conduct a powered descent so they burn up in the atmosphere, there is almost no impact.”

Lewis says he’s having an increasing number of conversations with operators, who are sharing their plans and asking, “is that good enough?” He is encouraged that operators such as OneWeb are putting their plans into the public domain so that they can be scrutinized openly.

“For most of the space age, it’s been the governments that have made use of space, but what we’re seeing now is businesses seeing the market potential,” says Lewis. “In order to achieve that potential, they have to look at the environment. That’s why companies are saying, ‘We need to operate clean. We need to protect the environment.’”

The Business of Sweeping up Space

Seeing space debris float around in imaging models is sort of like watching flurries in a snow globe. But what is visually akin to snowflakes drifting aimlessly in a palm-size souvenir is actually thousands of satellites and pieces of space debris in LEO, encircling Earth — a swarm of objects that is expected to thicken as megaconstellations launch, raising the likelihood of multiple collisions.

To the rescue comes a growing number of startups whose business case is based on their power to mitigate debris. The best-funded among these is Singapore-based Astroscale. In 2017, the four-year-old company raised $25 million from investors in Japan, including aviation company ANA Holdings and industrial machinery provider OSG Corp. That brings the company’s total raise to $53 million, counting a $7.7 million Series A raise in 2015, and a $35 million Series B raise in 2016.

Meanwhile, China, whose infamous 2007 anti-satellite test generated thousands of pieces of debris, recently made headlines when researchers at the Air Force Engineering University in China published a proposal to use giant lasers to destroy old satellites and other debris.

However, whether this market is viable — or the technology used to clean up debris is sufficient — remains to be seen.

For one, there is the issue of who foots the bill for deploying these debris-removal services — is it split among different carriers based on constellation?

Another concern, pertaining to Astroscale and its competitors, is that debris-cleanup technology appears to be limited to smaller junk — not the bigger, semi-truck-size satellites that cause the most harm to satellites (Astroscale did not return a request for comment).

“Astroscale’s technology is a bit limited, because they were targeting objects around 50 kg,” says Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Southampton who studies space debris. “A one-centimeter impact on a big satellite is not as much of a worry because you’re not going to generate many trackable fragments.”

Still, Lewis and others say they are encouraged by the ongoing progress in the area of debris removal, as the movement to launch megaconstellations picks up steam. VS