Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on May 01, 2021
The race for mega satellite constellations: Crowding and control in Low Earth Orbit

< lang="en-US">Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is increasingly becoming crowded. The Chinese have announced that they will be launching a mega constellation of 13,000 satellites and are determined to achieve it. < style="color: #0563c1">< lang="en-US">Dubbed the “Guowang” (GW),< lang="en-US"> the constellation is meant to meet satellite-based internet services. The rush to generate internet service from space-based assets in LEO has created several challenges and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has become the latest entrant among a long list of American companies and the European Union. US-based giants such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) with its Starlink satellite constellation, OneWeb, Hughes Network Systems and Boeing Co. Ltd, and now the PRC with its state-owned satellite-based internet constellation are competing and crowding LEO. The EU < style="color: #0563c1">< lang="en-US">too is inclined to launching< lang="en-US"> its super constellation for space-based internet service and sees increased competition from American private sector giants. Indeed, SpaceX has gone one step ahead by announcing it is seeking permission to add a further 30,000 more satellites to existing 12,000 strong Starlink constellation putting it on a collision course with its rivals in the US and abroad. SpaceX has followed the same strategy with the launch of its Starlink constellation as has done with its Tesla Motors products, which is another Elon Musk company.

< lang="en-US">Tesla’s electric vehicles are launched first and then upgraded. SpaceX’s has followed the same pattern of launching satellites first and then upgrading. This contrasts with what OneWeb does and other companies are doing with their satellites. The latter test first extensively to ensure their spacecraft work effectively before launch. Tesla has launched roughly 1,300 satellites, which is only a fraction of its Starlink satellite network. Notwithstanding initial failure rates that stood at 5 percent, SpaceX claims it is has reduced the failure rate to 1 percent. SpaceX also claims it quickly deorbits malfunctioning satellites in order to reduce the presence of junk in LEO which poses significant hazard to all spacecraft.

< lang="en-US">However, with Beijing planning its own constellation which is definitely going to compound the problem of crowding in LEO and signal interference, the rush to secure orbital slots is heating up. There are considerable benefits in having satellite constellations in LEO, chief among them being improved and rapid communications due to short distances. Quicker and higher data rate transmission or low latency makes large satellite constellations for a whole range of commercial, civilian, and military activities in LEO attractive. Further, in the past civilian space agencies, especially the US’ National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) had near monopoly over activities in near space, the emergence of strong commercial actors as well as the PRC means that dominance has ended. < style="color: #0563c1">< lang="en-US">Not that NASA is complaining< lang="en-US">. Indeed, they see great opportunity in the role the commercial sector can play in supporting NASA tasks and missions in LEO for many years to come. Thus, the commercialization LEO proffers benefits the space economy, increases private space missions, and boosts private enterprise’s role in space-related Research and Development (R&D). Agencies such as NASA will potentially gain from other space agencies, whose presence in LEO will continue for many years to come.

< lang="en-US">Nevertheless, there are several challenges that flow from large satellite constellations in LEO. Apart from the Adjacent Satellite Interference (ASI) which generates signal interference with spacecraft belonging to other orbital constellations, debris makes near space activities such as the missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as astronomical study of near space difficult. SpaceX and other commercial players such as OneWeb involved in space missions have, at least in principle, < style="color: #0563c1">< lang="en-US">agreed and provided plans to< lang="en-US"> do what they can to mitigate the dangers posed by space debris and congestion.

< lang="en-US">The problems of congestion in LEO are not unique, other orbits at various stages were feared to become congested as well. Take the Geostationary Orbit (GEO) for example, during the Cold War, orbital slots in this orbit were expected to be < style="color: #0563c1">< lang="en-US">monopolized by a handful< lang="en-US"> of states, which they feared would be congested leaving smaller and developing countries no opportunity to exploit GEO for their needs. Monopolisation and congestion in GEO proved somewhat exaggerated for a few reasons. LEO is, however, distinct as opposed to GEO or Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) in that its low altitude makes it liable to high levels of congestion. Indeed, the higher the altitude, the greater the volumes in space are available. For instance, MEO has more volume than LEO and in turn GEO has more volume in space than MEO. More volume means more satellites and other spacecraft can be accommodated. Higher orbits do not present the volume constraints that LEO does. The problems of orbital congestion that afflict LEO are simply absent in the case of MEO and GEO. The chances of satellite collision are greater in LEO. In the Cold War era when the prospect of GEO being monopolized and congested were pronounced, the issues were about equity, opportunity, and fear of sovereignty violation. To some extent, these views were shared as much by developing countries as they were by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, there are similarities between the past and the present. China’s motives today, although not explicitly stated, to develop the GW network as a space-based national internet service is akin to the erstwhile Soviet Union’s efforts to hide behind claims of sovereignty to prevent its rival the US from cornering critical orbital slots in GEO to broadcast signals that would prevent the US and the West generally from subjecting its citizens to Westernising influences. In a nutshell, the Soviet position on GEO use was also borne out of the need to control information flows.

< lang="en-US">The PRC in all likelihood fears the same consequences, especially with American-based companies beaming internet services that could influence Chinese citizens in ways that could be detrimental to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power. Thus, it would not be far-fetched to assume that controlling information accessible from a space-based internet network based in LEO is why the Chinese are moving with haste to create their own mega satellite internet network. Regardless of whether the mega satellite constellations are developed and launched by states or commercial enterprises, they will have to jointly commit to reducing and mitigating the dangers posed by debris. Establishing an international convention that regulates the presence of satellites in LEO is another possible way in making LEO less congested and more sustainable for use.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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