How satellites could revolutionise high-speed internet for the unconnected: Know the benefits and the risks

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos
Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News

Highlights

  • Some 47,000 satellites are planed for launch to deliver cable-like internet and connect the unconnected.
  • There are currently 9 entities that plan to blanket the whole world with  low-earth-orbit satellites.
  • They promise to link the remotest parts of the planet, with high-speed, low latency service.
  • But some scientists fear these constellations could deposit more high-altitude alumina in the Earth’s upper atmosphere
  • They could also lead to potentially dangerous on-orbit collisions on a regular basis, and increases the risk of impacts due to meteoroids.

The year is 2021. It will be remembered as the year of vaccine race, when billions of COVID-19 shots were deployed to heal the world. It will also be known as the constellations race — when thousands of were deployed to bridge the world.

When terrestrial lines fail, such as what happened to Tuesday (June 8, 2021), satellite-based ones kick in. No one is supposed to even notice the outage. That, in general, is the idea behind the new space race. For this purpose, at least 47,000 satellites are planned, more than all the satellites sent by man since the beginning of time. With nearly 1,500 satellites already launched (610 so far this 2021), Starlink has started testing its network (with 500,000 “beta testers”).

Eventually, SpaceX hopes to launch as many as 42,000 satellites as part of Starlink. If that sounds exciting (or crazy), it even gets wilder, as there are eight similar projects in the works.

Starlink illustration
An illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows the shortest path in the network between London and Johannesburg. Image Credit: Mark Handley/University College London

1,500

number of Starlink satellites currently in orbit, out of the planned 42,000.

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Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

Q: What’s happening now?

Starlink may be the most advaced in the game of low-latency, low-earth-orbit satellite internet constellation sweepstakes. Following are the eight (8) similar projects proposed or are in progress:

1. Kuiper Project

Satellites planned: 3,236

Satellites launched: 0

The Kuiper Project, a subsidiary of Amazon, was announced in 2019 by CEO Jeff Bezos. The firm in turn wishes to launch a constellation of satellites to compete with Starlink and Oneweb, this time 600km away from the earth.

The project is still at an early stage, because no satellite has yet been put into orbit, the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) has, however, already granted the dispatch of 3236 devices into orbit to constitute the Amazon constellation. To keep its license, Kuiper will have to deploy half of them before 2026, and the other before 2029. On December 18, 2019, Amazon announced its Kuiper team has moved to a permanent R&D HQ with the latest facilities to design and test its megaconstellation of broadband LEO satellites. For its launch, Amazon will be able to benefit from its aerospace subsidiary Blue Origin, but the firm also signed deals to use other services to accelerate the deployment.

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The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date. Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology. Image Credit: AFP

2. OneWeb

Satellites planned: 648

Satellites launched: 182

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Image Credit: File

OneWeb is a multinational project launched in 2014 to provide high-speed internet connection to individuals, anywhere in the world. The project is strongly similar to Starlink, but is not as advanced and does not expect the same performance. The service will offer a connection of 50 ms and 50Mb / s minimum.

The OneWeb satellites are made in collaboration with Airbus Defense and Space. OneWeb places its satellites in orbit 1,200km from Earth. The firm has passed through several hands, but is currently owned by the British government, Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and satellite telecommunications company Eutelsat.

OneWeb
OneWeb has a grand vision — a 700-satellite network that flies 1,200km above the ground to cover the whole world with WiFi signal, including the half of the planet currently without connectivity. With its high throughput — at >1tbps across the constellation — and global coverage, OneWeb promises to transform the lives of those who are currently “underserved”, or simply un-served, by web access. Image Credit: OneWeb

To make its network usable, the company must reach 648 devices in orbit, but is only at 182. To send them into orbit, OneWeb uses Russian Soyuz rockets, so the Russian state has a certain interest in it. the project, even if it will deploy its own constellation of satellites.

3. Lynk

Satellites planned: up to 5,000

Satellites launched: no data

On May 25, 2021, Lynk announced that it has applied for a commercial operator’s license with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to offer its “cell towers in space” services around the world. Lynk differs from other constellation projects because its goal is not to deploy an internet connection service, but cellular “towers” in space, to provide an automatic backup system to ensure connectivity to areas impacted by cellsite shutdowns.

The goal is to provide a satellite telecommunication service for any mobile phone — especially in remote areas that do not have a traditional mobile network. Currently, the only way to use the means of satellite telephony services is to have a suitable device or to add an accessory to a conventional smartphone. Lynk’s backers claim to have developed software for their satellites which allows conventional telephones to be configured in order for them to receive the Lynk network. In 2020, using a test satellite deployed from the International Space Station, Link succeeded in connecting an unmodified smartphone to space.

Lynk has announced they will use 25-kg satellites which will orbit about 500km above the Earth. Its ultimate goal: sell satellite services to traditional telecommunications operators and the general public.

LEO MEO GEO satellites
Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata

4. SatRevolution

Satellites planned: 1,024

Satellites launched: 0

SatRevolution is a Polish company launched in 2016. What sets it apart is its aim to deploy “nano satellites” to conduct real-time and ultra-precise terrestrial observation service, in a satellite constellation. The firm plans to deploy approximately 1,024 low-earth orbit satellites by 2026, which the company said will allow their network full observation of the Earth at all times.

The service will, for example, make it possible to collect photographs and multispectral data for the agriculture or energy sectors. The satellites will be located at about 500km altitude and should be synchronised with the illumination of the Earth by the Sun. To deploy its satellites, SatRevolution has established a partnership with the American firm Virgin Galactic.

5. Program Sfera

Satellites planned: 600

Satellites launched: Not known

Russia plans to deploy fast internet access via LEO satellite constellations. Russia joined the launch of OneWeb devices earlier, but it has also envivionsed Sfera (also known as Efir). The project aims to provide a broadband connection around the northern sea route, above the Arctic Circle, a strategic point for Russia. A constellation of 600 satellites should be gradually deployed at an altitude of 870km, from this year (2021). The complete and operational Sfera network is scheduled for 2024.

6. Guowang

Satellites planned: 12,922

Satellites launched: Not known

China is not left out and will also deploy its constellation of low-orbit satellites to provide sovereign access to the Internet to Chinese people who live in the many remote areas of the country. The network will cleverly be called “Guowang”, which translates to “national network”.

To do this, China will deploy no less than 12,922 satellites between 500km and 1,145km away from the Earth. The mega-constellation should however extend to the entire Asian continent, while Sfera focuses on Russia, and OneWeb, Amazon and SpaceX on the United States and Europe at first.

One could thus consider Guowang as an integral part of the Chinese program of the new silk road, tool of international influence vis-a-vis the other powers.

LEO satellite
FASTER CONNECTIONS: Most of the current communications satellites are in a geostationary equatorial orbit (altitude: about 36,000 km). A constellation of smaller satellites at low-Earth orbit would make them better positioned to quickly receive and transmit data, as signals can travel more rapidly through the vacuum of space than through fiber-optic cables. LEO satellites could then potentially rival or possibly exceed the fastest ground-based networks. Image Credit: File

7. The European project

Satellites planned: 600

Satellites launched: 0

It is the turn of the European Union to deploy its own internet network by constellation of satellites at low altitude. The project is still in its infancy and does not have an official name. Presented in early 2021, the project aims to provide an efficient internet network, where it is not otherwise available. In remote areas, on the move or on a plane, for example.

The constellation will not be deployed before 2027 and it is expected to send around 600 spacecraft into low earth orbit. While the costs are substantial – around 5 billion euros — the aim is to maintain the EU as a space power. The project will allow Europe to establish its strategic independence in situations where a quality connection is not available other than by satellite. Also, this will guarantee secure data exchanges in times of crisis, without going through foreign third parties.

8. Lightspeed/Telesat

Satellites planned: 298

Satellites launched: 0

The Lightspeed constellation project is planned by the Canadian satellite telecom firm Telesat, jointly with French and Italian stakeholders. Telesat aims to blanket the whole world with a high speed and fast internet connection. The project should be completed by 2023. Initially, the Lightspeed constellation will consist of 298 satellites located in polar orbits between 1,015 and 1,325km away from Earth. Unlike its competitors, Lightspeed will only cater almost exclusively for professional services and will arguably be more expensive. Telesat thus promises a connection of several terabits per second.

What is latency?

It’s the delay between a user’s action and a web application’s response to that action (the total round trip time it takes for a data packet to travel).

HOW IS LATENCY COMPUTED:

An electromagnetic wave (EMW) travels at the speed of light (300,000 km/second). The total roundtrip time for a satellite internet using geosynchronous satellite (altitude: 35,000km) is 70,000km. If you divide that distance by the speed of light (300,000 km/sec), latency is 233 ms.

The round-trip time is called latency. The higher the latency, the slower the internet. Real-life latency can be much higher (result: lower speed) due to various system delays. By comparison cable internet (using fibre-optics cable) has latency between 20 ms to 40 ms.

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Image Credit: File

Q: What are the upsides?

Internet anywhere: Much of the globe (or even within the US) has “dead spots”, i.e. still without internet service. Starlink promises internet is faster than traditional satellite internet, and comparable to fibre-optics-based intenet service.

High speed: promises a 30-millisecond (latency) for “gound-to-ground” link via Starlink low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. This is in contrast to geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO, latency = 500 ms ) or medium-earth orbit (MEO, latency=125ms).

This gives LEO satellites the ability provide high-speed, low-latency, reliable internet anywhere on planet Earth.

Low latency: High-speed data services (very high volume of data messages with minimal delay) designed to support operations that require near real-time access to rapidly changing data (like stock trading, data mining, etc).

Flexibility: They can be used for homes, ships, aircraft, and even Arctic research stations.

Q: What are the downsides?

Atmospheric pollution:

An article published in Nature on May 20, 2021 came with a warning. it pointed out that satellite re-entries from the Starlink mega-constellation alone could deposit more aluminium into Earth’s upper atmosphere than what is done through meteoroids — they could thus become the dominant source of high-altitude alumina.

Space debris:

Due to the sheer numbers of planned spacecraft, there’s an increased risk of space objects in low-earth orbit. As such, untracked debris could lead to potentially dangerous on-orbit collisions — on a regular basis due to the large number of satellites within mega-constellation orbital shells.

“The total cross-section of satellites in these constellations also greatly increases the risk of impacts due to meteoroids,” wrote Aaron C. Boley, or the Department of Physics and Astronomy, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. “De facto orbit occupation by single actors, inadequate regulatory frameworks, and the possibility of free-riding exacerbate these risks.

Q: What needs to be done?

Satellite industry, space science and astronomy experts say international cooperation is urgently needed — along with a regulatory system that takes into account the effects of tens of thousands of satellites.