More Industry InsightsStarlink, OneWeb, Kuiper, Hongyan … the issues behind mega-constellations of satellites

June 7, 2021by myles0

By 2025, the advancement of the information society accelerated by Covid-19 will increase demand for high-speed connectivity across the world. Many operators are already positioning themselves accordingly to take advantage of the growth that is emerging in the data market. However, some solutions implemented by large telecom companies to satisfy their consumers, even those in the most remote areas of the planet, could turn out to be double-edged.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), certain data traffic patterns will become permanent in view of the change in Internet consumption habits caused during the global pandemic. In its report “  Economic impact of COVID-19 on digital infrastructure  ” published in 2020, the specialized agency of the United Nations states: “  This very likely means that domestic broadband connectivity and remote computer systems will continue to grow. more critical in terms of speed, latency, security, reliability and cost ”.

In this rapidly changing telecoms environment, several renowned satellite operators such as Intelsat, Eutelsat, Yahsat, Inmarsat, SES or even O3B are accelerating their expansion. Some people have the idea of ​​developing constellations of satellites. But where they envisage less than 30 devices, the American companies SpaceX and Amazon, the Indo-British OneWeb and the Chinese Hongyan speak of mega-constellations, strong for some of more than 5000 mini devices which will be deployed in low Earth orbit. That is to say between 200 and 2000 km from Earth. Quite close compared to the traditional geostationary orbit located at nearly 36,000 km.

The American companies SpaceX and Amazon, the Indo-British OneWeb and the Chinese Hingyan speak of mega-constellation, strong for some of more than 5000 mini devices which will be deployed in low earth orbit.

Their objective, in the data market segment where competition is rapidly developing, is to bring high-speed connectivity everywhere on the planet. Each wants to provide the Internet even in the most remote areas of the earth, so far cut off from the digital world. An ambition that will also guarantee them fairly significant income with the emerging Internet of Things market.


On May 26, SpaceX added about sixty satellites to its mega-constellation initiated since 2019. Through this umpteenth launch, the company increased its space workforce to more than 1,500 devices placed 550km from Earth. Almost 700 have already been launched this year. By 2025, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, plans to place a total of 12,000 satellites in space.

OneWeb is also making progress in implementing its mega-constellation, albeit at a slower pace than SpaceX. It must be said that the company found itself running out of financial resources in March 2020 because of the Covid-19 which thwarted a number of funding promises. Saved from bankruptcy in July 2020 by Bharti Airtel and the British government, then by the French Eutelsat, the company crossed the bar of 200 satellites in space on May 28. OneWeb plans to surround Earth with a fleet of 650 mini-satellites. The launches are all managed by Arianespace.

or Jeff Bezos, boss of Amazon, it is the launch of 3236 mini-satellites that the company is preparing. The mega-constellation is called Kuiper. At the end of July 2020, Amazon had obtained the agreement of the American authorities in charge of frequency control for the deployment of its equipment at altitudes of 590, 610 and 630 km provided that they do not interfere with other mega-constellations. being deployed and have at least half of the constellation deployed by 2026. Amazon plans to invest $ 10 billion in the project.

China is also working on its mega-constellation. The project called Hongyan involves a total of 12,992 mini-satellites. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), China’s leading space contractor, plans to put the first 60 satellites into orbit by 2022.

In its report “  The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020  ”, the World Association of Telephone Operators (GSMA) estimates that nearly half of the world’s population now uses mobile Internet. 3.8 billion people are already connected but 600 million people remain deprived of access to the telecom network. Mega-constellations will greatly contribute to their integration into the digital world. However, this interest in better global connectivity coverage raises many concerns.

Space traffic jam

For operators competing with mega-constellations, the high number of mini-satellites that will be disseminated in low orbit around the earth already used by remote sensing, telecommunications and scientific satellites, but also by the international space station, will congest the near space environment. A fear which does not really worry the International Telecommunication Union which estimates that “  the low orbit is in fact a continuum of orbits with altitudes ranging between 200 and 2000 km. All these satellites are therefore positioned at different altitudes. Some altitudes could become congested, but others will remain available  ”.

“Low orbit is in fact a continuum of orbits with altitudes ranging between 200 and 2000 km. All these satellites are therefore positioned at different altitudes. ”

Concerning the use of the low orbit chosen by the mega-constellation promoters, the ITU’s responses do however raise concerns. “  In order to preserve frequency resources for the future needs of Member States, the ITU has developed and included in the radiocommunications regulations space plans which allocate to each member country, especially those in Africa, a set of radio frequencies associated with one or more geostationary orbital positions. At this stage, the spatial plans relate only to the geostationary satellite orbit because it is the one that is the rarest in terms of orbital characteristics. As the other orbits are altitude continuums and therefore less prone to scarcity, there is so far no similar arrangement. », Explains the Union. Clearly, in low orbits it is first come first served since space is not the property of any country, according to the Space Treaty of 1967. A big disadvantage for a large number of countries which are still stammering in the development of space telecommunications, especially those in Africa.

While telecom operators are struggling to make their voices heard on the management of low-earth orbit, astronomers around the world are more aggressive in defending their interests. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) believes that mega-constellations will further complicate the work of astrophysicists in the study of astral bodies, which is already difficult enough. ” First, the surfaces of these satellites are often made of highly reflective metal, and reflections from the sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise cause them to appear as dots in the night sky. While most of these reflections can be so faint that they are difficult to spot with the naked eye, they can be detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground-based astronomical telescopes, including the extreme wide-angle surveillance telescopes currently in operation. construction. Second, despite notable efforts to avoid interfering with radio astronomical frequencies, the aggregated radio signals emitted by satellite constellations can still threaten astronomical observations. “. The Union has moreover already approached the United Nations in order to encourage it to decide on a regulatory framework which will mitigate or eliminate the harmful effects on scientific exploration. After a preliminary meeting from April 19 to 30, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is due to take a decision in August. For the International Academy of Astronautics, the growing pollution of space is also worrying.

What about pollution

After the pollution of the earth, which currently represents a huge challenge for future generations, conservationists denounce the pressure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is putting on the sky. They believe that the mismanagement of a minority will again weigh on everyone’s shoulders. As of May 20, 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) estimated at 11,670 the number of satellites sent into space since 1957. Of these, 7,200 are still in space, while 4,300 are still functional. The total mass of space objects in Earth orbit is estimated to be over 9,400 tonnes.

With mega-constellations, the total mass of space debris is likely to multiply, as is the potentially dangerous re-entry into the air. ”  It is estimated that there were approximately 25,000 atmospheric re-entries since Sputnik 1 in 1957. Of these 25,000 re-entries, there were 10,000 large objects  “, declares Christophe Bonnal, researcher at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) in France and chairman of the “Space debris” commissions of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).

“  The Earth is made up of 70% water, 10 to 12% of savannas and deserts and 3% of densely populated areas. The risk for humans is therefore low indeed, but it is not zero, it does exist […] There is yesterday. And there is tomorrow. As long as the situation looks like yesterday, there aren’t too many items yet. Tomorrow, the big risk is the explosion of the number of new satellites in space, with all that is called “New Space”, “Space 4.0”, “mega-constellations”, in the decades to come up. And that really changes the situation,  ”he continues. With the battle for the Internet unfolding in low orbit, the likelihood of the sky eventually falling on our heads increases.

Source: Agence Ecofin

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