Why SpaceX And Amazon Are Launching 42,000+ Satellites

Since the start of the space
age, more than 8,800 objects have been launched into Earth’s orbit. But in a few years,
that number could increase significantly. Private companies plan to launch
tens of thousands of satellites into space to beam internet
to customers on Earth. Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone has
announced plans to launch 42,000 satellites as part of
its Starlink internet project. If this happens, SpaceX will, by
itself, be responsible for about a fivefold increase in the number
of spacecraft launched by all of humanity. Technically, a satellite refers to
any object that orbits another, larger object in space, like
the Earth orbiting the sun. But when we talk about satellites,
we usually think about manmade satellites. The first manmade satellite
launched into space was called Sputnik and it was about
the size of a beach ball. This is Russia on
October 4th, 1957. On the launching pad
is Sputnik Assembly First. Freely translated to mean ‘traveling
companion to the Earth.’ The Soviet Union is launching
the first Earth satellite. Sputnik signaled the beginning
of the space race. And since then, we’ve been launching
more and more objects into orbit. Now, companies such as
SpaceX, Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb want to launch thousands of satellites
to make what they call megaconstellations. A megaconstellation is a network
that has hundreds, or even thousands of satellites all orbiting
and working together in a complete system. The reason these
companies are pursuing these megaconstellations comes down to
essentially two factors. One is that the cost of
hardware for these types of satellites has come down and they’ve
shrunk in size considerably. And the second is because there’s
an increasing demand for data all around the world. So providing high-speed data to any
point on earth is an increasingly valuable asset. Satellites that provide internet are
not necessarily a new idea. Companies like Hughes Network Systems
and ViaSat are already beaming internet to rural parts of
the planet that are not served by fiber cable connections. About 49 percent of global households
are still not connected to the internet. And these are
the people that traditional satellite companies have tried to reach. Today, there are only a
small number of consumer internet offerings over satellite. They tend to be more expensive and
they also tend to have fairly low numbers of users. In the United States, there are
only about 2 million customers out of our more than a
hundred million households that utilize satellite internet. One big issue with current
satellite networks has been latency. Traditional satellites orbit very far
away from the Earth. And that distance increases the
overall latency in the network. Latency is the responsiveness
of the network. So if you are streaming
something online, it’s how quickly something loads or how
smoothly it runs. Most internet satellites today
operate in what’s called ‘geostationary orbit,’ which is
around 36,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface and remain fixed
on top of one area. But the satellite systems that
SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat are proposing will operate in what
is called ‘low Earth orbit,’ or between 180-2,000 kilometers
above Earth’s surface. In theory, this should cut down
on the latency issues, with speeds up to 20 times
faster than current GEO satellites. But to get the same coverage
with LEO satellites, you need more of them. The speed of transmission
of light in fiber is 40 percent slower than it is
in air or vacuum. So in fact, you can build
a quite extensive low Earth orbit satellite network and have
very fast communications capability because they’re lower. You actually need more of them
to cover an effective area, right? They just can’t see all
the parts of the Earth. So our higher orbiting satellites used
to be able to get away with a much smaller number
of actual orbiting vehicles, whereas these new, lower earth orbit
constellations do require more. However, there’s more to
it than that. They also need to
have adequate power. And if they’re going to provide
lots of people with connectivity, they need to have
lots of capacity. Hence, you need more
satellites to do that. Whether having, you know, 10,20
thousand or more satellites orbiting is warranted for any of these,
is still yet to be seen. Satellites still need something back
on Earth to receive their signals. Beyond building the
satellites for these megaconstellations, these companies will also
have to invest in heavy amounts of infrastructure
on the ground. That will look like thousands or
even millions of antenna all around the world to receive the
signal from the satellites and distribute it to consumers
on the ground. Plans to offer internet from space
may sound familiar as both Facebook and Google have considered
developing these kinds of satellites before. But Facebook hasn’t announced anything
in over a year since talking about its
Athena satellite. And Google is one of the
main investors in SpaceX’s system. So they’re expected to look very
closely at how Starlink is developed. The top
companies pursuing megaconstellations are tech giants SpaceX
and Amazon, as well as satellite builders OneWeb
and Telesat. . The leader in this category,
at least by quantity of satellites launched, is SpaceX, as they’ve
launched 120 of their Starlink satellites so far this year and are
set to launch another 60 very soon. And we have
confirmation of deploy. You can hear the
team in the background. This is an incredible
moment for SpaceX. You can see those flat-packed
Starlink satellites slowly gliding away from the top
of the second stage. This is the highest number of
satellites that SpaceX has ever deployed in a single time. SpaceX’s utilization of its
renewable Falcon 9 rocket dramatically decreases the cost of
sending satellites into space. FCC documents show that SpaceX
expects Starlink to become operational once at least
800 satellites are deployed. The main value of Starlink
is providing low latency, high bandwidth access
to sparse and moderately sparse, like a
relatively low density areas. It’s probably able to serve
like three to five percent of people in the world. SpaceX began
with the idea to launch 12,000 satellites. But in October 2019,
the company requested permission for an additional 30,000. SpaceX has also put in a request with
the FCC for up to 1 million Earth stations, which end-user
customers will utilize to communicate with its satellites. The U.S. Air Force is also
testing Starlink’s satellites on its military planes and has so
far reported favorable results. SpaceX has said that it will
begin offering internet service by 2020. Hot on SpaceX’s heels
is OneWeb, which is already building its own satellites, having
launched six earlier this year. We’ve done a joint venture
with Airbus and we have a factory at Cape Canaveral and we’ve
really set up a supply chain and we’re using the same satellite
over and over again to populate our system. And we’re going to produce 650
for the first layer of capacity, which will be
for global coverage. But we’ll go all the
way up to 2,000. Like SpaceX, OneWeb has its own
set of big name backers, including Softbank and British
business magnate Richard Branson. OneWeb says each of its satellites
cost about $1 billion to produce. But unlike SpaceX, OneWeb
must depend on Russian-built, Soyuz rockets to
launch its satellites. Unlike OneWeb and SpaceX, Amazon
has yet to launch any satellites, and is early in
developing, as it’s still seeking regulatory approval for its
project Kuiper Network. Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to
launch a total of 3,236 satellites into low-Earth orbit. Back in April 2019, Amazon hired
the former leader of SpaceX’s satellite program to run Project
Kuiper after Musk fired him. According to reports, Musk had become
frustrated with the pace of Starlink’s development. Though it’s behind on building
satellites, Amazon already has a head start on
ground infrastructure. In November 2019, the company announced
AWS Ground Station, a new business unit that will build
twelve satellite facilities around the world to provide the vital
link needed to transmit data to and from satellites in orbit. Plus, although technically a different
company, Jeff Bezos’ , Blue Origin would be the
obvious choice to launch these satellites. Also in the mix
is Canadian satellite builder Telesat, which has received significant
investment thus far but hasn’t launched any
satellites yet. They’re negotiating with companies
that would build their network, which is estimated to
cost about $3 billion. Astronomers are now very concerned
about this new, large constellations that are
being launched. The number that are planned
would exceed all satellites launched to date. And the real challenge
here is not necessarily the number of new launches. It’s the brightness, how bright
these things will be. That they will saturate our detectors
and cause all sorts of difficulties in
astronomical observing. This image, taken from a telescope
in Chile in November 2019, illustrates the concerns
from astronomers. The telescope, meant to see images
of distant stars and galaxies, instead captured the light trails
of 19 Starlink satellites. Some astronomers took to Twitter
to express their concerns after SpaceX launched the first 60
Starlink satellites back in May 2019. summarizedAfter astronomers raised these
concerns, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said in a tweet that
his company would look at how they can decrease the brightness
of these Starlink satellites. SpaceX president, Gwen Shotwell, also
told reporters in December 2019 that they planned
to address the issue. SpaceX will put a special coating on
the bottom of one of the satellites on its third launch to
test if that will decrease the satellite’s brightness. We have monthly telecons with
SpaceX engineers to discuss these things. The LLST project in Chile
also has another set of telecons with them on a regular
basis to try to address these issues. There’s been no action taken
yet, but you know, we’re hopeful that that
something will change. The company says that they’re committed
to keeping the night sky dark. These satellites could
also impact radio astronomy. In a statement following the
first launch of Starlink’s satellites, the International Astronomical
Union summarized their concerns saying, ‘despite notable
efforts to avoid interfering with radio astronomy frequencies,
aggregate radio signals emitted from the satellite constellations
can still threaten astronomical observations at
radio wavelengths. Recent advances in radio astronomy,
such as producing the first image of a black hole or
understanding more about the formation of planetary systems were only
possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio
sky from interference.’. Another major concern is debris. This summarized by a theory
called the Kessler Syndrome, which posits that when two objects collide
in space, they generate more debris that then collides with
other objects, creating even more shrapnel and litter until the entirety
of Earth’s lower orbit is impassible. This hypothetical scenario came
to life in February of 2009 when an inactive
Russian communications satellite Cosmo’s 2251 collided with an
active commercial communication satellite operated by .U.S.-based Iridium Satellite. The incident produced
around 2,000 pieces of debris. Debris is particularly
important considering that SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon have all said
that their satellites would have a lifespan of only 5-7 years, which
is about half the lifespan of traditional satellites. When the companies are finished with
the satellites or they fail in orbit, they plan to de-orbit
them, which means that the satellites would be intentionally pushed
back into the Rarth’s atmosphere, where they would
burn up during reentry. One of the key questions facing
this industry is who regulates these megaconstellations. And that’s a gray area. We don’t
have a mandate to approve or reject any space activity
of any sovereign government or of any company. Companies are
under the jurisdiction of the state in which they’re located. It’s incumbent upon those states to
put in place a system of authorization and
continuing supervision. In the United States, the
authority to regulate these satellites falls largely on the
Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is in charge
of radio frequency distribution and mitigating any debris that may
result from these satellites. Under Ajit Pai, the FCC has
been eager to work with these companies. At a 1.6 million foot view, you might say
we see an industry that is changing quickly in space. And we are trying to make
sure that our regulations change with it. A Byzantine licensing and
regulatory approval system could be a bottleneck that hurts
consumers and innovators alike. And that makes a difference because
now, a satellite can be built in a matter of months, or weeks,
or even days in some cases, and launched by a private
provider on demand. And that’s why under my leadership,
the FCC has been committed to matching the tempo of the
industry that we regulate. Our space agenda involves cutting
red tape and giving green lights. In the same speech, Pai promised
that the FCC would do a comprehensive review of its orbital
debris rules to address recent market developments. Other U.S. regulators also include the
Air Force, the FAA, and in some cases, NOAA. The Air Force maintains the official
catalog of objects on orbit that the United States uses
to avoid conjunctions and close approaches on orbit. The FAA controls the launch licenses,
and if you have a camera looking down on it, then you
would need a license from the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. The connectivity market around the
world is certainly well north of a trillion dollars. Of course, you have to look at
what the addressable market is for each of these companies. They won’t be competing very effectively
in many cases with your local mobile phone provider or maybe
your fiber to the home provider if you’re lucky enough to
live in one of those areas. But for areas where there aren’t a
lot of good options or maybe no options today, this is going
to be an attractive opportunity. However, the caution is that
there really is a limit to what many people in the
world can pay for internet. You know, if you live in an
area where you lack clean water or maybe don’t have a consistent
food supply, having internet service may not be
your first priority. We’re going to work first on
the verticals where there are people right now willing to pay a lot. In airplanes and on boats. And then we’re also
working with partners. And those partners are governments
and they’re also terrestrial mobile operators that want
to extend their networks. And then when we think about what
we’re trying to do as our social mission, which is to connect
everyone, I mean, the best sort of line about the
company is, OneWeb one world. We want everybody
to be connected. Still, some more established satellite
companies are not buying into the hype of
low Earth orbit megaconstellations. ViaSat currently serves around
600,000 residential customers in the U.S. and Europe and
is launching a new geostationary satellite that it expects to be
in service globally by 2022. The reason that we’ve focused on GEOs
is that GEOs seem to be able to deliver more bandwidth and
more speed at lower cost, and that’s what our end users want. There’s also a number of really
important risks that are still to be dealt with in
the LEO environment. A lot of that is regulatory risk. It’s not clear that any individual
company or country will be able to scale safely to the
number of satellites that are being envisioned. And without that scale,
there’s a big question about how economically viable these
systems will be. And the other really big issue
is the geographic distribution of demand. When you do a LEO
system, you have to have your satellites distributed according to
orbital characteristics, not according to the demand
on the ground. During a media call in May
of 2019, Elon Musk estimated that Starlink could bring in revenue of
$30 billion a year and would be key to fund his
vision of colonizing Mars. Experts agree that estimate
is not far fetched. We think that the satellite
constellations can be tremendously profitable. There’s a significant upfront
cost to launching the satellite broadband networks, but they
are very strong cash generators. So when we when we
think about Project Kuiper being, you know, tapping into $100
billion opportunity, we think about that $100 billion opportunity as
consumer broadband as a whole, with Project Kuiper, you know, in
position to take a slice of that. People shouldn’t be swayed
by hearing some seemingly outrageous numbers of individual
satellites being launched. Really, we have to keep focused
on what are they enabling, what’s the business going to be, and what
kind of services do they offer to consumers and businesses.


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