LEO: The Next Space Race
Challenges, opportunities and internet in Low-Earth Orbit
As our hunger for high-speed internet access grows worldwide, satellite broadband providers are racing to provide more services from space. While this increases connectivity and provides expanded tech opportunities, it also makes a pretty crowded low-earth orbit (LEO).
Satellites in space have been around since the 1960s, starting with Telstar, Intelsat, and others providing virtually instant global communication. Fast forward a few decades, and there are nearly 20,000 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth as of October 2019 according to the US Space Surveillance Network, including 2,218 operational satellites. There are also about 129 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm orbiting around the Earth, which can penetrate surfaces like a space bullet.
Understanding Earth’s orbits
LEO is an orbit between 160 and 2,000 kilometers above the earth, with a short orbital period of approximately 90 to 120 minutes. Since LEO satellites can only communicate with a narrow portion of the earth’s surface, a large number are needed for global coverage. These satellites are commonly used for data communication, remote sensing and human space flight and have the lowest latencies (the time it takes to deliver data from transmitter to receiver) than higher satellites.
Though less popular, there are also satellites farther out in Medium-earth orbit (MEO) between 2,000 and 35,786 kilometers above the earth. Satellites in this orbit can see more of the earth than LEO-based satellites, and have much lower latencies than satellites farther out. This orbit is used by both positioning (such as Global Positioning System) and communications satellites.
Just beyond MEO is a Geosynchronous orbit (GEO). At 35,786 km above earth’s surface, satellites in GEO move at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation, staying in the same relative place over the Earth’s surface. Providing the best view of the planet, GEO is great for imagery, communication and weather satellites. Ground based antennas can remain stationary when connecting to GEO orbiting satellites, rather than having to track a moving object.
In an effort to fill in gaps in internet service around the world, there is anticipated to be at least 700 more satellites launched into LEO by the end of 2020. The internet seems like a widespread phenomenon, but according to the International Telecommunications Union, only about 53.6 percent of the world’s population are accessing the internet. Many more remain underconnected (without an internet speed of at least 25Mbps), including 19 million Americans.
Investing in space connections mean big money- as much as a trillion dollars by 2040 according to Morgan Stanley. To fill this gap, companies are deploying “megaconstellations” of hundreds or thousands of satellites linked to each other and to ground stations. It is anticipated that more than 16,000 individual satellites will be added over the next few years.
Why we are seeing such huge growth
Using satellites to expand internet service is not new. Many big names have been around for a long time- Viasat, Eutelsat, Hughes, Iridium, O3b Networks, plus a few false starts and epic fails. But 2020 marks the start of huge market growth for LEO.
What has changed is the cost to get into orbit. Competition has driven down launch and satellite construction cost. Smaller, lighter satellites are being mass produced using modular designs. Couple these lower production and launch costs with higher demand, and there is a strong economic driver to expand the industry. And it’s not just the billions underserved with no or slow internet. It’s our expectation that we can stay connected wherever we are- from our home, to the wilderness or on a plane. We are gobbling up waves of new technology, such Internet of Things (IoT) devices, all dependent on the internet. At the same time consumers are demanding instant delivery of media and information, requiring lower latency.
A crowded field
So, you might think that the space around our big blue ball is getting pretty crowded, and you’d be right. It’s also getting riskier for satellites already in orbit. The European Space Agency had to maneuver one of its scientific satellites last year to avoid potentially crashing into a Starlink satellite, and collisions have happened.
Ground-based entities that depend on this technology are also at risk. Beyond applications for our entertainment, satellite communication is critical for industries like finance and other forms of commerce. They are also critical for law enforcement, first responders and other emergency communications.
Managing space debris
According to NASA, there are no international space laws to clean up debris in our LEO, and the area is now viewed as “the World’s largest garbage dump.” Actions in orbit, such as destruction of the Chinese Fengyun-1C spacecraft in 2007 and the accidental collision of an American and a Russian spacecraft in 2009, plus satellites reaching the end of their useful lives but still floating in orbit, have contributed to the problem.
Smaller satellites in LEO typically use a minor amount of fuel to decelerate, and eventually burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. However, not all materials disintegrate. an average of one cataloged piece of debris has fallen back to Earth each day for the past 50 years. Despite their size, there has been no significant property damage from the debris. Operators can direct larger objects, like space stations in low orbit, guiding them to a remote area. There is an area of the Pacific Ocean with so much decommissioned debris, it is called the Spacecraft Cemetery. Satellites in high orbits are blasted farther away from earth to a “graveyard” orbit, 22,400 miles above our planet.
With many satellites only having a useful lifespan of about seven years, there will be a continually growing amount of space objects in orbit. A dedicated system can be integrated into a satellite before launch to remove it from orbit in a safe way. An independent decommissioning system can not only perform a fast, direct re-entry, but also conduct a re-orbiting maneuver to avoid space crashes, decreasing costs for operators. Devices that responsibly collect space junk after their useful life will hopefully be required by law soon.
The Space Race
Amazon is the newest player to apply for FCC approval, with plans to deploy their Kuiper satellite system in low-earth orbit, a constellation of 3,236 satellites for low-latency, high-speed broadband. Other U.S. market accessing licenses include Telesat, Kepler, LeoSat, SpaceX, OneWeb, SES (O3b) and Space Norway, not to mention projects in Canada, China, Russia, and Europe.
These companies will be in fierce competition to quickly grab market share. Some will compete with traditional cable or fiber-based internet providers, bringing broadband to rural or underserved areas. Some will focus on selling broadband services directly to industry, or providing new infrastructure for existing communications companies and 5G network providers. Others are looking at specialized applications like transportation- connectivity on aircraft, ships and trains, or for smart factories utilizing machine learning, big data and IoT. There are infinite possibilities.
The universe is vast, our orbits are not
Space is still somewhat of a new frontier, and not without technical, operational and financial challenges. Only the fittest will survive and be able to fulfill service expectations while keeping equipment operating reliably. When the internet reaches the remotest ends of the earth, will it be affordable? And for expanded services for the rest of us, it is yet to be determined how costs will compare to established terrestrial alternatives. Also, regulation must eventually reign in the mad rush to space, and address the growing problem of space junk, or Chicken Little, the sky might just be falling.