Saturday, June 12, 2021

Chinese space situational awareness and traffic management regulations and procedures

China's active (orange) and inactive (blue) satellites in low-
Earth orbit today (source). They plan to launch many more,
including a 12,992-satellite broadband Internet constellation.
In a recent issue of the Dongfang Hour Newsletter, Blaine Curcio pointed out that China's powerful State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) had published a notice intended to promote the orderly development of microsatellites and strengthen safety management.

The notice defines microsatellites as being below 1,000 kilograms, which would include those making up China's planned GwoWang/SatNet broadband constellation. Since this is slated to be a very large (12,992 satellite), it will exacerbate the problem of potential collisions in low-Earth orbit.

The notice lists 24 requirements many of which have to do with space situational awareness and traffic management:

  • Microsatellites should have mature and reliable de-orbit capability and avoid long-term occupation of common orbits. Satellites below 2,000 kilometers should de-orbit within 25 years of the end of the mission and those over 2,000 should rise to the graveyard orbit.
  • Satellite operators should take necessary technical measures to avoid the generation of separate fragments in orbit, including falling off, discarding, throwing, etc., and avoid explosions of energy storage components such as fuel tanks and batteries.
  • A  debris-mitigation plan should accompany the application for a license to launch. It shall include theoretical analysis, technical measures to be taken, effect prediction, etc, and meet the requirements mentioned above.
  • When a microsatellite is launched into orbit or its status in orbit changes, the owner shall inform the National Defense Science and Industry Bureau.
  • Thirty days before microsatellites carry out operations such as orbit transfer, rendezvous and docking, debris removal, and on-orbit maintenance, the operator shall notify the relevant national authorities. If a major security risk occurs during operation, it shall be terminated or immediately adjusted.
  • Relevant national departments will announce early warnings of possible microsatellite collisions, review evasion strategies, research risk, and recommend mitigation action.
  • Microsatellite operators should carry out collision avoidance maneuvers when discovering the risk of collision and report the situation and action taken to the relevant national authorities within one hour of the discovery of the risk.
  • Microsatellite operators should report collisions to the relevant national authorities within one hour.
  • In the event of a major emergency or emergency response event, the microsatellite operator should obey the overall management policies of the relevant state departments.
  • State departments are responsible for the daily monitoring and evaluation of the orbit status of microsatellites and de-orbit activities. When the orbit or status of microsatellite changes, the operator shall promptly inform the relevant state departments. 
  • For those who fail to report relevant information as required, the state department may take appropriate measures.
  • Microsatellites with mission objectives such as technology verification and scientific experiments have a relatively short business cycle and are encouraged to operate in orbits below 350 kilometers in order to facilitate rapid de-orbit after completion of the mission.

Disclaimer: The above is an edited version of a Google translation of the SASTIND notice and I welcome corrections, but the main point is that China acknowledges the importance of space safety. That's good news, but preserving the space commons will require agreement on regulations and procedures among all governments and companies that operate satellites and track orbiting objects.

SpaceX will soon have reusable rockets that can launch hundreds of satellites at a time and sometime after that China will be capable of the same. Chinese state-owned enterprises and at least one private company are working on reusability and they have the opportunity to learn from videos of SpaceX's soft-landing failures and publically available analysis from SpaceX and journalists like the Everyday Astronaut. The clock is ticking.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

SpaceX Starlink vs Telesat Lightspeed

Based on the company’s study of the broadband market’s rise and how to better support it, I guess it’s something we had to do. For us, you have no choice but to land at LEO.
Telesat President and CEO Dan Goldberg (Source)

With 1,675 satellites launched and 500,000 requests for service in the United States alone, SpaceX Starlink clearly leads all would-be providers of low Earth orbit (LEO) internet service to consumers. However, it is arguable that Telesat Lightspeed is in the lead, or contending for the lead with SpaceX, in non-consumer enterprise, government, mobile backhaul, mobility and rural community markets. SpaceX will eventually offer service to non-consumers -- they have already applied for mobile connectivity -- but have focused on consumers from day one.

Telesat is focusing on organizations.
Telesat is an established Geostationary orbit (GEO) Internet service provider, but it became clear that their customers and others were interested in LEO service so they began researching markets, evolving technology, and system design. (Goldberg estimates that about 25% of Telesat’s current GEO business could be served better from satellites in LEO).

Both companies started their LEO projects around the same time. In November 2014 Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX was "in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations" and they launched two test satellites in February 2018. In April 2016, Telesat ordered two prototype satellites, to begin tests for the design of a LEO satellite constellation. LEO Vantage-1 was launched in January 2018 and LEO Vantage-2 was launched in November 2017.

In the interim, SpaceX has made spectacular progress in rocket and launch capability while Telesat focused on LEO system design, conducting tests and demonstrations with their GEO customers and others, working on the DARPA Blackjack constellation, and evaluating potential vendors. This work led them to the decision to ignore the consumer market and that is reflected in the design of their constellation. Let's consider some of the characteristics of the SpaceX and Telesat systems.

Telesat plans to launch 78 polar-orbit satellites at an altitude of 1,015 km and 220 inclined-orbit satellites at 1,325 km while SpaceX's first phase is 4,408 satellites between 540 and 570 km altitude and inclinations from 53 to 97.6 degrees. SpaceX has permission to launch 12,000 satellites and has applied for 30,000 more and Telesat has applied to launch 1,600 more satellites if things go well. The mass of Telesat's satellite will be around 700 kg and SpaceX satellites are around 269 kg. As we see below, Telesat's satellites are larger because they do more -- process inter-satellite and satellite to ground data at high rates, adapt to dynamically changing customer requirements, and have multiple thrusters and control systems for deorbiting a failed satellite.

SpaceX is able to launch 60 of their satellites at a time using their current Falcon 9 rocket and that will increase to 400 with the Starship. Telesat plans to launch early satellites on Blue Origin and Relativity Space rockets but is talking with others, including SpaceX, for subsequent launches. Goldberg estimates that a Falcon 9 could launch 15 or 16 satellites to an inclined orbit and “something like 13” to a polar orbit. Those numbers would increase roughly 6 times with a Starship.

Since Telesat satellites will be more expensive to build and launch, they are designing them for a ten-year life compared to five years for SpaceX. SpaceX per-satellite manufacturing and launch costs will be much lower than those of Telesat but it will cost them more to make and launch 12,000 satellites than it will cost Telesat to make and launch 298. That being said, SpaceX will have the opportunity to update their technology more frequently and will have the cost advantage of in-house, high-volume mass production.

SpaceX beta testers in relatively affluent nations are paying $500 for a terminal and a monthly fee of $99 and customers will receive untiered, best-effort service with no data caps. (SpaceX may charge consumers less in poorer nations if they have unused capacity). Most beta testers are reporting download speeds of 50 to 150 Mbs and latency from 20ms to 40ms with occasional dropouts. Capacity will improve as more satellites are launched but the available capacity will be shared by more users.

Telesat will have far fewer customers but will offer guaranteed service-level contracts with speeds up to 7.5 Gbps to a single terminal or 20 Gbps to a hotspot. They will be able to dynamically configure their service -- for example requiring different performance during the day or night or increasing airport capacity during the holiday travel seasons -- which will require a software-defined network operating system. (At one time. they had agreed to use the operating system Google had developed for Project Loon, but Loon was terminated and it appears they will use Netcracker Technologies software instead).

SpaceX and Telesat both plan to have polar-orbit and inclined-orbit planes which will enable global coverage. Telesat has applied for a patent on that architecture. There may something unique about the Telesat design and, if the patent is granted, maybe SpaceX will have to pay royalties.

Telesat's orbits are at higher altitudes than those of SpaceX so their satellites will have larger footprints, hops from one satellite to another will be less frequent and their customers will be farther apart, reducing the likelihood of interference. There will also be less congestion and the likelihood of a collision at the higher altitude but, if a satellite fails and becomes debris, it will take longer to deorbit so Telesat satellites have GPS and Gallileo receivers, multiple thrusters and control systems, and grappling hooks for tracking and powered de-orbit if necessary.

SpaceX will be in commercial operation before Telesat, but Telesat has gained cutting-edge experience with their work on the Blackjack constellation and will be able to use later technology. For example, SpaceX initially planned to have five inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) on each satellite, but the technology was not affordable when they began launching satellites so they had none. (They now have 10 satellites with four ISLLs each in orbit). In the meantime, Telesat worked with Mynaric on the Blackjack constellation and when they finally begin launching their satellites they will each have four ISLLs, improving performance and lowering ground segment cost. (Telesat ISLLs will be full-duplex, capable of ingesting 4 x 10 = 40 Gbps and transmitting 4 x 10 = 40 Gbps simultaneously).

Terminals are another key technology. SpaceX will require millions of consumer terminals. They are estimated to cost $1,500 today, but the cost is expected to fall to a few hundred dollars within a year or two. Still, the total cost of consumer terminals will be substantial and they will have many customers to service. SpaceX has applied for permission to deploy mobile terminals on ships, planes, and trucks. (How long will it be before a Starlink terminal is offered on a Tesla car)? Telesat will have a variety of fixed and mobile terminals when they launch their service and I expect that SpaceX will also by that time.

It looks like neither SpaceX nor Telesat will have trouble financing their first production constellations. Telesat says it will need $5 billion, and it has existing GEO revenue, government support for rural connectivity, revenue from the sale of C-band spectrum and loans, and is planning a public stock offering to complete Lightspeed funding. SpaceX says it will need $10 billion, but it has received five grants and completed 15 funding rounds. The latest funding round, completed in April, valued SpaceX at $74 billion, up from $46 billion in August 2020. SpaceX will also receive a subsidy for rural connectivity and has a profitable launch business and government contracts.

SpaceX is vertically integrated, manufacturing satellites and components like phased-array antennas, ISLLs, and user terminals as well as launching their own satellites. SpaceX will develop most of their system in house but will partner with Microsoft and Google on the ground segment and also uses LeoLab's satellite tracking service. Telesat is handing marketing and customer relations, but will outsource launch service, system integration, satellite design and manufacturing, laser terminals, antennas, the operating system, etc to others. Perhaps they are considering contracting with Google and/or Microsoft for ground infrastructure and service.

I've singled out SpaceX and Telesat for comparison because they have made significant progress, but they are not the only LEO broadband contenders. OneWeb is also focusing on non-consumers and they will be offering service before Telesat. I imagine Amazon Project Kuiper will also focus on non-consumers since Amazon has been an infrastructure company since it was founded. Finally, with plans for 12,992 satellites, my guess is that China SatNet will serve consumers and non-consumers in China and countries with Belt and Road infrastructure projects. Starlink, Lightspeed and the others can all succeed if we are able to avoid collisions in LEO.

Update 5/31/2021

Telesat had hoped to earn $300 million from C-band specturm sales, but looks like the Canadian Government, not Telesat will run the auction for its spectrum and it may or may not compensate Telesat when the sale is held in 2023.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Avoiding low-Earth orbit collisions -- the clock is ticking

There was a recent dispute between OneWeb and SpaceX regarding the possibility of a collision between two of their low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. OneWeb's satellite (OneWeb-1078) was launched on March 25 and headed for it's orbit at an altitude of 1,200 km when, in early April, it passed near a SpaceX satellite (Starlink-1546) in orbit at about 450 km.

There was no collision, but subsequently OneWeb's government affairs chief Chris McLaughlin said SpaceX had turned off their autonomous collision-avoidance system so OneWeb could maneuver around their satellite and SpaceX denied that they had switched the system off and said "there was never a risk of collision."

This sounds a little like a PR battle, but both sides may have been sincere because satellite tracking is imprecise. The satellites were being tracked by SpaceX, OneWeb, and two independent organizations, the Air Force 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) and LeoLabs which offers a commercial satellite tracking service. As we see in the plot shown here (source), their estimates of the probability of collision vary.

In addition to helping explain the dispute between SpaceX and OneWeb, the variance in these estimates illustrates the difficulty of accurately tracking and predicting the orbits of satellite. The incident also highlights the difficulty of communicating and cooperating in deciding on maneuvers to avoid collisions.

SpaceX and OneWeb began deploying their broadband Internet service constellations recently, but as of early 2020, LeoLabs was tracking about 14,000 objects in LEO that were 10 centimeters across and larger. About 1,700 were functional satellites working on other application and the rest were debris. We also had a debris-collision warning Last week when the astronauts en route to the International Space Station were instructed to put on their space suits due to the possiblity of a collision with a piece of space junk.

Fast forward five years

The SpaceX-OneWeb and astronaut-debris events provide an early warning. There are around 3,000 satellites in LEO today, but how about five years from now? As shown here, the five would-be broadband constellation operators have authorization to launch over 30,000 satellites and, if we add in pending requests for approval, the total increases to around 100,000. Furthermore, Russia and the European Union are working on broadband satellite plans as are the US and Chinese militaries and don't forget the forthcoming large non-broadband constellations, like Geely's Geespace constellation.

We've had a few scares recently and the number of close calls requiring an automated or manual maneuver to avoid a collision will increase dramatically in the future. Runaway debris in LEO would cost us more than just having to give up the goal of global broadband service. It would disrupt critical applications we already depend upon in climate science, emergency response, agriculture, etc. I am confident that LEO broadband providers can find solutions to the technical problems they face like low-cost antennas, inter-satellite laser links and spectrum sharing, but collision avoidance is tougher because in addition to technical innovation like improving the accuracy and resolution of terrestrial and space-based orbit tracking, it will take political action.

This map shows that 72 nations own and/or operate satellites, but last week, English-speaking engineers at SpaceX and OneWeb were unable to agree on the orbit data and communicate and cooperate when it appeared that a collision might be forthcoming. If SpaceX and OneWeb cannot agree, what will happen when, for example, military satellites from China and the US are involved?

Space, like the oceans, is a global commons and it is not in anyone's interest to spoil it. We need global regulations, standards and procedure and a means of enforcing compliance if we are to avoid collisions and mitigate debris. We are running out of time. We've been working on maritime law for centuries and the UN International Maritime Council has 174 member states -- have we begun talking about this issue with the Chinese?

It's time to act.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has produced a 12-minute video (with cool animations) that describes the debris problem and the current debris mitigation guidelines, which are neither universally followed nor adequate for the future. ESA projects for automating collision avoidance, refueling and repairing satellites in space, active debris removal and technology to hasten the deorbiting of defunct satellites are mentioned in this call for action. Indeed the title of the video is "Time to Act."

Update 5/2/2021

Several readers pointed out that the Chinese ratified the UN Outer Space Treaty and Registration Convention in the 1980s. If one takes my question "have we begun talking about this issue with the Chinese?" literally, the answer is "yes." But, clearly the situation has changed since the 1980s so a more relevant question would have been "are SpaceX and Guowang engineers talking with each other?" I don't know if we can wait for Outer Space Treaty-2.

Update 6/1/21

Ground segment market researhcr Alexandre Corral predicts that "over 2,100 Earth observation satellites will be launched as part of about 70 constellations during the next decade, driven by the operators' ambition to provide higher revisit with global coverage." That is nothing like what SpaceX and the other broadband constellations anticipate, but it will add to congestion in LEO.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Guowang, renamed China SatNet, will be China's global broadband provider.

In an earlier post, I described what looked like two forthcoming Chinese broadband constellations, Hongyun and Hongyan and in another post, I described a third, identified as "GW" at the time. All three were projects of state-owned enterprises China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC).

There was pushback from those contending that a broadband constellation was redundant since Chinese mobile operators China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom cover most big cities and even more sparsely populated regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. On the other hand, if a constellation were built, some remote cell towers could be de-commissioned and, in my mind more important, China could serve other nations as part of its Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. Chinese authorities are aware of the constellations of SpaceX and others, and China would have an economic and political advantage over them in nations with Belt and Road projects. (It is noteworthy that a third of this 2018 presentation on the Chinese Spatial Information Corridor is devoted to explaining "How the corridor contributes to the space capacity building of developing countries").

The decision has been made. CASC's GW (Guo Wang) will be China's global broadband service provider and the constellation is tentatively named "Starnet." (I've seen "Guo Wang" written as Guowang and translated as "national grid" and as "national network"). Speaking at one of the two major conferences that review Chinese five-year plans, Bao Weimin, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and director of the CASC Science and Technology Committee, said that “We are planning and developing space Internet satellites and launching experiments. For satellites, the state will also set up a Guo Wang "state grid" company to be responsible for the overall planning and operation of space Internet construction."

China's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 were adopted this month and, as China space expert Blaine Curcio points out they call for building an integrated communications, Earth observation, and satellite navigation system with global coverage. The Chinese already have navigation and Earth observation satellites and it sounds like Starnet will be the communication component. Curcio was not surprised by the inclusion of these space goals in the five-year plan since it was foreshadowed by both the Belt and Road Spacial Information Corridor (see the essay beginning on page 19 of this report) and Made in China 2025 initiatives. He also speculated that Hongyan might be responsible for some of the eight Guowang sub-constellations.

Elon Musk has been quoted as saying his goal for Starlink is to avoid bankruptcy and OneWeb's Sunil Bharti Mittal says that "two satellite constellations in LEO will be enough, perhaps there might be space for three, but definitely not for four." I don't know about his prediction, but in spite of being behind the others -- SpaceX is offering service and OneWeb plans to do so next year -- Guowang, with the backing of the Chinese government and an edge in Belt and Road nations, seems a pretty safe bet to be around for a long time.

Update 4/5/2021

Here is a link to China's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and here is a non-editable Microsoft tranlation and here is an editable version. If you speak Spanish and can improve the translation, this version is editable. (To make edits, contact me for the password).

Update 4/30/2021

GuoWang, renamed China Starnet, will be funded by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), which accourding to China-space expert Blaine Curcio, is a major change. Curcio says "the project will have significantly greater autonomy than if it were a sort of subsidiary of CASC/CETC/China Telecom. It is now their equal, a 4th ISP, from space."

Curico has noted that the Chinese are generaly more familiar with our space program than we are with theirs and it seems that this constellation is a response to SpaceX Starlink. Guowang plans 12,992 satellites and SpaceX has authorization for 12,000 and their planned orbits are similar to those of Starlink before they received permission to lower the orbits of many of their satellites earlier this week.

Update 5/18/2021

The name of this constellation keeps changing. First it was "GW" then "Gwowang". An article in Axios called the new name "China Star Network" and Asia Times "Starnet." I asked Blaine Curcio, a Chinese space consultant and co-host of the Dongfang Hour Podcast about the new name and he said he that 中国星网 is the name that will stick. (Type that into Google Translate and you get "China Star Network"). Now he's written a post calling it "China SatNet." I will go with that for now, but we need an agreed upon name for search engines. The post also gives brief biographies of the three senior people who will be leading the project.

Update 6/9/2021

Andrew Jones reports that Oriental Space, a new Chinese commercial launch company focused on expendable and reusable launchers, has been formed and is planning on commercial crew flights and eventually planetary exploration. That sounds a lot like a SpaceX clone. 

Oriental Space was jointly founded by "a senior aerospace technology team and successful technology entrepreneurs" and has completed a 400 million yuan angel round led by Jingwei and Sequoia China and a host of other companies and entrepreneurs.

This may be the answer to the question "how can Starnet/GwoWang launch 12,992 broadband satellites without hiring SpaceX?"

Saturday, February 13, 2021

SpaceX Starlink is coming to low-income nations

I expect that many Starlink customers in low-income nations will be organizations in which connections are shared.

The introduction of the Internet into a community will have unanticipated side-effects on the community and the individuals in it.

Early Indian VSAT terminal
Beta testers in the US and Canada paid $500 for a terminal and are paying $99 per month for the service. The beta tests began in high-income countries, but SpaceX is beginning to roll Starlink out and will include low-income nations, for example, India.

Last September, SpaceX responded to a request for consultation on a roadmap to promote broadband connectivity and enhanced broadband speed from TRAI, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India. In response, SpaceX made several recommendations that would enable them to quickly begin service in India. The talks between SpaceX and TRAI must be going well because, on November 2, Elon Musk tweeted that they would be operating in India "As soon as we get regulatory approval. Hopefully, around the middle of next year".

Musk is famously optimistic, but let's assume they are authorized by TRAI -- will rural Indian consumers be able to afford the price SpaceX is charging in the US? For now, the price of Starlink service will be the same in every nation, but that may change if they find they have excess capacity after more satellites are launched.

Loading Pikangikum terminals
(from 5-minute video)
Regardless, many Starlink customers in low-income nations will be organizations in which connections are shared rather than individual homes. We already see such examples among the current beta testers. One beta site is the Pikangikum First Nation, a 3,000-person indigenous community in remote Northwestern Ontario, Canada where Starlink is serving community buildings and businesses as well as residences. Other Starlink beta testers are Allen Township, outside of Marysville, Ohio, and the Ector County, Texas, and Wise County, Virginia school districts which are installing Starlink terminals in student homes.

I expect that many Indian installations will be like these -- serving community organizations, clinics, schools, businesses, telecenters, etc. rather than consumers in their homes. Of necessity, low-income nations have a long history of shared Internet resources and India is no exception. My colleagues and I found Internet kiosks and telecenters in India in the early days of the Internet, click here and here, and in other low-income nations. For a richly illustrated global tour of early telecenters and their applications and impact, click here. (Jim Cashel has suggested that SpaceX should focus on schools).

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has quipped that setting up a Starlink connection is as simple as pointing the terminal at the sky and plugging it in and that seems to have been close to true for the Pikangikum community. The Pikangikum installation was spearheaded by FSET Information Technology. FSET delivered the terminals and installed the first 15 then community members took over and installed 45 more.

But what about more difficult installations? A casual perusal of the Starlink discussion on Reddit shows that some users have to build creative mounts to connect in wooded or otherwise obstructed areas. Skill is needed for installations in areas where there is no clear view of the sky or some local networking is used to share satellite terminals.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore at
Netday96 Source
Again, of necessity, technical improvisation by citizens is common in low-income nations. Think of community "street nets" which may be small like this one in Gaspar, Cuba, or large like SNET in Havana. Building networks like these requires technical skill, tools, and supplies, and there may not be an FSET around to help. SpaceX and other constellation operators will need to support rural communities by providing online and in-person training and a marketplace for tools and supplies. The Sun Microsystems Netday initiative for installing local area networks in schools provides an early, successful example of this sort of vendor support of community networking.

Of course installing terminals is just the tip of the iceberg. A community or organization network must be financed and users trained. Again, the constellation operator should play a supporting role. Note that the Musk Foundation has just made a "significant" contribution to Giga in furtherance of their goal of connecting every school to the Internet. I don't know anything about the terms of the grant -- whether it is cash or subsidy -- but since terminals are expensive and SpaceX is selling them at a loss, perhaps the schools will receive free service. That would cost SpaceX essentially nothing as long as the school was at a location with unused capacity and it could be phased out over time -- something like the National Science Foundation phasing out university connections in the early days of the Internet.

Since Teledesic in the 1990s, prospective constellation operators have promised that Internet connectivity would improve the health, education, and economy of unserved regions and entertain the residents as well, but we are no longer naive and have learned that there may be negative social and personal side effects. For example, in 2011 only 1% of individuals in Myanmar were Internet users. Myanmar privatized mobile connectivity in 2013 and the first international link was activated in March 2014. In June 2014 Aljazeera was asking whether Facebook was amplifying hate speech against the Rohinga.

On a lighter note, I'd hate to see all the Pikangikum teenagers hooked on video games. The introduction of the Internet will have unanticipated side-effects on the community and the individuals in it. It's an opportunity for a 21st-century Margaret Mead to live among the Pikangikum and other communities to observe the changes.

Update 2/17/2021

I used India as an example in this post, but SpaceX is active in several other low-income nations. They have either opened an affiliate office, applied for or received authorization to offer service, or begun negotiations in the following nations: South Africa, Nigeria, The Philippines, Chile, Columbia, and Mexico. A Teslarati article also mentions Brazil and the Caribbean. One of their affiliate offices, SpaceX Netherlands B.V., has subsidiaries in several European nations, and that may be the case with the Caribbean office that Teslarati mentions. It is a long shot, but I hope one of the Caribbean nations Starlink is talking to is Cuba. (More on that in another post).

Update 2/18/2021

National and local governments, non-governmental organizations, foundations, etc. will also subsidize broadband service from SpaceX and other LEO satellite providers. For example, SpaceX has tentatively been granted $885 million to subsidize rural connectivity in the US and Telesat has been awarded C$85 million for rural connectivity in Canada. One can envision arrangements in which a government or foundation pays for the purchase and installation of equipment and the satellite operator provides free or discounted service. As mentioned above, this would cost the service provider nothing as long as they had excess capacity in the region being served.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

SpaceX is first with inter-satellite laser links in low-Earth orbit, but others will follow.

SpaceX is willing to subsidise expensive hardware like laser links and end-user terminals in the short run.

When SpaceX first announced plans for Starlink, their low-Earth orbit Internet service constellation, they said each satellite would have five inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) -- two links to satellites in the same orbital plane, two to satellites in adjacent orbital planes, and one to a satellite in a crossing plane. They subsequently dropped the crossing link as too difficult and, when they finally began launching satellites, they had no laser links. Last year they tested ISLLs on two satellites.

Last November, SpaceX requested that the FCC modify their license to allow them to operate 348 satellites at an altitude of 560 km and an inclination of 97.6 degrees in order to serve the polar regions. This month, the FCC postponed their decision on the 348 satellites, but granted SpaceX permission to operate ten satellites to "facilitate continued development and testing of SpaceX’s broadband service in high latitude geographic areas" and those ten satellites were launched as part of a 143-satellite rideshare.

That rideshare was a record-setter, but it is more interesting to note that those ten polar-orbit satellites were equipped with operational ISLLs and Elon Musk confirmed that the remaining 338 would also have ISLLs if approved. In the same tweet, he confirmed that their inclined-orbit satellites would be equipped with ISLLs next year, but only the polar satellites would have them this year.

SpaceX must be confident that the full 348 satellites will be authorized since the first ten, while useful for tests, would not provide meaningful connectivity and my guess is that the polar-orbit satellites will be able to link to the inclinded-orbit satellites with lasers when they begin launching next year. (Note that Telesat has applied for a patent on a Dual LEO Satellite System in which polar and inclined-orbit satellites communicate with each other).

How about the other LEO satellite projects?

Telesat plans to launch a hybrid constellation with laser links connecting polar and inclinded satellites and is already working with Mynaric, a German laser communication company, on Blackjack, a LEO constelltion being developed for the US Deparrtment of Defence, so Mynaric may supply the lasers for Telesat's satellites. It's also interesting that Mynaric's US office is in Hawthorne, California, home of SpaceX. OneWeb initially planned to equip their satellites with ISLLs, but they decided not to for cost and political reasons. As far as I know, Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper has not officially committed to having ISLLs between their satellites, but they are hiring optical engineers to work on the constellation and are planning applications that will benefit from ISLLs. I don't know about the Chinese broadband LEO compaines, but at least one Chinese company Intane, produces space lasers. (Mynaric has withdrawn from the Chinese market due to political pressure).

HydRON connecting the ground,
LEO and GEO satellites and deep space
In the long run, I expect that every LEO broadband provider that survives, will be linking their satellites with ISLLs -- doing so will lower latency and reduce the need for terrestrial ground stations. Furthermore, I expect we will see ISLLs between LEO, MEO and GEO satellites. Telesat and OneWeb may have the lead on multi-layer links since Telesat is already a well established GEO satellite communication company and Hughes is an investor in OneWeb. SES, which operates both MEO and GEO satellites is an investor in the forthcoming Europen Union LEO constellation and the European Space Agency has a long ISLL history and has recently launched project HydRON, which hopes to demonstrate the seamless extension of terrestrial fiber networks with "fiber in the sky" -- a terabit GEO/LEO optical network in space

But, that's the long run. For now, SpaceX is far ahead of the field in nearly every dimension, including ISLL development and deployment and it seems they are willing to subsidise expensive hardware like laser links and end-user terminals while focusing on relatively affluent markets like North America, Europe and Australia in the short run.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite internet service developments for 2020

I posted reviews of important LEO-satellite Internet service developments during 2017, 2018 and 2019. I've updated those posts during the years and have 18 new posts for 2020. In 2020 we saw increased effort from China, OneWeb's bankruptcy and restructuring with new ownership and prospects, Amazon investng in space-related infrastructure, Telesat making steady progress, SpaceX making rapid progress and satellite and debris tracking and collision-avoidsnce service startups. The following are brief summaries of and links to the 2020 posts.

China will be a formidable satellite Internet service competitor (Jan 28)

This post describes three planned Chinese constellations, at least one of which will focus on broadband Internet service. Testing has begun and satellite mamufacturing capacity is being developed. They will serve both domestic and international users as part of China's global Digital Silk Road infrastructure program and are funded by both private and government investment.

LEO Broadband Will Create Millions of Jobs (Feb 13)

SpcaceX is recruiting hard-working, trustworthy people with common sense regardless of their education. They will train new-hires. This was commmon practice in the 1960s, when IBM had a formal two-year training program for new hires and the 1950s when the US government paid IBM to hire and train 3,000 programmers for the SAGE early-warning system.

Geely's LEO constellation for mobile vehicle connectivity (Mar 4)

The Geely Holding Group (GHG), a diversified, private Chinese conglomerate that is best known as an auto manufacturer, began construction of an intelligent satellite production and testing facility.

OneWeb is bankrupt -- who will buy their assets? (Mar 31)

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy and partnership of the British government and Bharti Global limited, an Indian telecommunication conglomerate serving parts of Asia and Africa, bid a billion dollars to acquire OneWeb's assets and restart the company.

SpaceX applies for a constellation re-design and announces beta test dates. (Apr 24)

SpaceX applied for a redesign of their constellation. If approved, the number of satellites would essentially be unchanged, but many would be at lower altitude and some will be moved to polar orbits enabling better coverage of far northern and southren latitudes.

Can SpaceX launch 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites? Maybe. (Jun 8)

SpaceX applied for permission to launch 30,000 "second-generation" Starlink broadband Internet satellites. This post describes the proposed constellation and speculates on their ability to fund, manufacture and launch so many satellites and the feasibility of dealing with the space debris that the effort would create.

Rural broadband subsidy -- what's the rush? (Jun 13)

The Federal Communications Commission adopted procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to award up to $16 billion in support over 10 years for the deployment of fixed broadband networks. The post describes the program and questions the categorization of satellite-based services as high-latency and the rush to allocate the funds.

Questions on the impact of trees on SpaceX Starlink (Jun 24)

This post raises a number of questions about the impact of trees and other obstructions as well as rain and snow on SpaceX Starlink service.

Amazon Aerospace and Satellite Solutions -- integrating satellites and terrestrial services (Jul 6)

Amazon announced Amazon Web Services Aerospace and Satellite Solutions to market and assist in the design and implementation of complex space/terrestrial systems. SpaceX has a substantial lead in launch and satellite deployment and Amazon has superior terrestrial resources and is building the organization and infrastructure to connect them to space.

OneWeb rises from the ashes -- maybe (Jul 22)

A consortium of the UK Government and Bharti Enterprises bought bankrupt OneWeb, a company that had raised $3.2 billion and had acquired valuable spectrum rights, for $1 billion. While they lag behind SpaceX and will need more capital, they have a number of advantages and I hope they succeed.

Bill Gates has not forgotten Teledesic (Sep 17)

Gates was a founding investor in Teledesic, the first attempt at LEO satellite Internet connectivity, but it failed. Today, he is a major investor in Kymeta, a leading supplier of electronically-steered antennas and Microsoft tested satellite access to their Azure cloud services. Microsoft does not want to miss out on space connectivity and services.

A new Chinese broadband satellite constellation (Oct 2)

China applied for specturm for a major new LEO satellite constellation with 12,992 satellites, roughly half of which will orbit at around 550 km and half at 1,145 km. SpaceX is off to a fast start and will be first to offer connectivity in America and Europe, OneWeb, through Bharti, has an edge in Asia and Africa and the Chinese companies have the same in Digital Silk Road nations.

SpaceX Starlink is on a roll (Oct 23)

SpaceX entered into a partnership with Microsoft to connect to their Azure cloud, giving them an answer to Project Kuiper's integration with Amazon Web Services and infrastructure. They also began offering beta service to a few individuals and organizations in the northern US and solicited applications for a public beta test and saw such strong demand that they requested an increase in the number of authorized US terminals. They have also registered 14 shell companies in 13 foreign nations and are deploying ground stations in north America and Europe.

SpaceX Starlink beta, phase two (Oct 28)

Starlink opened beta testing to the public. Applicants must be between 42 and 53 degrees north lattitude. The inital locations must be in the US and the price is $99 per month for the service $499 for a terminal.

Satellite and space debris tracking as a service (Nov 6)

LeoLabs and Northstar are offering satellite and debris tracking and collision avoidance as a service. LeoLabs is using terrestrial, phased-array radar and Northstar is tracking from satellites. Tracking and collision avoidance is a technical and political problem because it requires collaboration and data sharing among government and private satellite operators from all nations.

Starlink will be priced to be affordable (Nov 14)

SpaceX and others will have to charge less for connecivity in developing nations if their service is to be affordable and fully use the capacity of the constellation. Charging more in affluent markets will increase revenue and tend to reduce the "digital divide" -- good business and good karma.

OneWeb is out of bankruptcy, but is not out of the woods (Nov 25)

OneWeb has emerged from bankruptcy with Bharti and the UK governmenet having 42.2% ownership each. Some of their previous agreements are in place and some inevestors are still participating. They will have to raise more capital and are well behind SpaceX, but have acquired assets that had cost $3.3 billion and have marketing advantages in several areas. We need competition and I hope they succeed.

Telesat update -- proposal for a larger constellation, Canadian and DARPA contracts, a planned IPO and more (Dec 28) Telesat has submitted a plan calling for an increase in the number of satellites they launch to 1,671. While they have not yet launched production satellites, they have run many tests and demonstrations and have research contracts with the US and Canadian governments, Canadian government support, a steady stream of income from their 50-year old geostationary satellite business, ground stations in the north and plans for an IPO to finance the LEO constellation.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

SpaceX Starlink beta and beyond

SpaceX began public beta testing of the Starlink Internet service in the northern US late last October. Since then, they have made many software updates based on the beta experience and have expanded the uninterrupted-coverage area by launching new satellites. By the end of the year, they had begun beta service in southern Canada and sent beta test invitations to a few UK users. The beta-eligibility area is expected to expand from the current 45-53 degree latitude this month or next.

SpaceX is actively seeking permission to operate in other nations. The legal ins-and-outs are confusing but it has foreign affiliates in at least 5 European countries and one of those, Starlink Holdings Netherlands B.V., has subsidiaries in 4-6 other European nations, including Germany and Greece, and in Argentina. SpaceX also has foreign affiliates in Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa and is in discussion with the Philippine government.

SpaceX will have to establish relationships with every nation they plan to operate in and these affiliate companies are an important asset. They also have contacts through their launch business, for example in Argentina, where they launched the SAOCOM satellites. This is obviously a fast-changing situation and you can watch the list grow and find more information by following this FAQ wiki and the Starlink discussion on Reddit.

The cost of the beta service in relatively affluent nations seems to be roughly the same. In the US, beta testers are paying $99 per month for the service and $499 for a terminal, including a tripod and WiFi router. In Canada, it's $649 CAD and $129 CAD per month and £439 and £89 per month for service in the UK. There are no data caps for now, but that might change if demand outstrips the evolving capacity. Elon Musk claims that users can easily install the terminal themselves -- just point it at the sky and plug it in -- and, while that may be true for users with a clear view of the sky, others will have the added expense of creating custom mounts to avoid trees and other obstacles.

What about the prices in less affluent nations like the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, Columbia, and Argentina?

The percent of the rural population that can afford the current beta prices is lower in those nations than in North America and Europe and the gap is even wider in many other nations. SpaceX will either charge less in poor nations in order to fully utilize capacity or focus on organizations like schools and clinics rather than individual consumers.

In addition to licenses, SpaceX will need ground stations with fiber connectivity to the regions they serve. The map shown here shows ground stations in North America and Australia, but it is somewhat out of date. They are also working on ground stations in France and New Zealand and, as with licenses, Reddit is a good place to follow current developments.

SpaceX has a clear lead over other would-be low-Earth orbit Internet service, providers. They have 874 working satellites in orbit, beta-testers in four nations, affiliates in others, and superior launch technology, but this is just the start of the game. Satellite broadband is a dynamic, multi-dimensional market; technology is changing rapidly and SpaceX has formidable competition. The situation reminds me of "IBM and the seven dwarfs" in the 1960s.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Telesat update -- proposal for a larger constellation, Canadian and DARPA contracts, a planned IPO and more

Telesat has a number of unique advantages and, if LEO broadband truly is a half a trillion-dollar addressable market, there will be room for multiple providers.

Blue satellites are in polar orbits and
red satellites are in inclined orbits.
Click here for animation.

I've discussed Telesat's LEO broadband project in earlier posts, but the project has progressed, so an update is needed.

The original plan was to launch 117 satellites but that has changed. The phase 1 constellation will now have 298 satellites and the second phase will add 1,373 for a total of 1,671. The revised plan has been submitted to the FCC, and they expect it to be approved next year.

While Telesat applied to increase the number of satellites, the macro architecture remains the same as originally planned. There will be two sub-constellations, one with 351 satellites in polar orbits (98.98 degrees/1,015 km) and another with 1,320 in inclined orbits (50.88 degrees/1,325 km). This patented architecture will enable them to serve the entire globe. (I am not a lawyer, but I wonder whether that is something that can be patented).

The sub-constellation architecture will enable global coverage and low latency but will require sophisticated inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs). It turns out that DARPA is also developing Blackjack, a military LEO communication constellation, and since the military requires low-latency and the ability to quickly establish connectivity at arbitrary, perhaps remote locations, they require ISLLs. Telesat received a $2.8 million study contract for the design of the Blackjack bus in 2018 and was awarded $18.3 million to develop and test Blackjack last October. In that role, Telesat selected Mynaric to supply ISLLs and may use them in their satellites as well.

The Canadian government has granted Telesat C$85 million to support research and development and another C$600 million to subsidize Internet connectivity in rural Canada. The R&D funds will go to early satellite tests and will support approximately 500 professional jobs and the rural connectivity funds are like those in the US where SpaceX was awarded $885 million.

While Telesat will have global coverage, they will focus on Canada and the north at first and that will put them in competition with OneWeb which plans to do the same. OneWeb will have a head start since it already has a distribution partner and plans to begin service in the north next fall, but Telesat will need fewer ground stations because of it's ISLLs and it already has 10 GEO teleports in North America and two others in Hawaii and Austria.

Telesat has run tests and done demonstrations of many potential applications since launching a test satellite in 2018 and Lynette Simmons, Director of Marketing and Communication, says the system design is complete and they expect to announce the prime contractor very soon. They will finance the constellation by restructuring and a public stock offering. President and CEO Dan Goldberg is confident that they will be able to raise sufficient capital based on their track record. The company is over 50 years old and is a large, global GEO satellite operator that has been broadcasting televiion since 1978, providing Internet connectivity since 1996 and they have been doing advanced research for both the US and Canadian governments. Goldberg thinks LEO broadband is a half a trillion-dollar market and you can see his pitch in the following video.

Let me add a little speculation. Nearly two years ago, Telesat signed an agreement to use the software defined network (SDN) platform Google had developed for Project Loon, which provides connectivity using baloons in the stratosphere. If Telesat's system design includes Google's SDN, Telesat LEO satellites may be able to interoperate with Google's baloons. Going a step further, they may one day interoperate with Telesat's GEO satellites, creating an integrated three-layer network routing packets between as well as within layers depending upon the service level required by a customer or application. An integrated network could also provide fallback in the case of equipment failure.

A reader recently commented on my Twitter feed that Telesat was "moot," because SpaceX has superior launch capability and a head start, and OneWeb, which, like Telesat, is forsaking the consumer market for commercial applications like 5G backhaul, is a direct competitor. He was wrong. Telesat has a number of unique advantages and, if LEO broadband turns out to be anywhere near the half-trillion-dollar addressable market Goldberg expects, there will be room for multiple providers.

Updates 12/28/2020

A reader pointed out that Telesate has also committed to investing the revenue from their sale of C-band spectrum in the LEO constellation. That spectrum will be used for 5G mobile connectivity and will enlarge the prospective mobile-backhaul market.

Speading at a webinar on "Building NewSpace," Michel Forest, Telsat Director of LEO Systems Engineering says there is significant demand for LEO among their current GEO customers who want low latency and more capacity in specific places like airline hubs and ports. (33:37)

For a threaded discussion of this post on Reddit, click here.

Update 2/23/2021

Telesat received $344 million for their share of the C-band auction and C$400 million from Quebec (C$200 grant and C$200 loan) for economic development.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

OneWeb is out of bankruptcy, but not out of the woods.

OneWeb, which declared bankruptcy in May, has reorganized and emerged from bankruptcy. Bharti Global, an Indian telecommunication conglomerate, and the British government each own 42.2% of the new company, and most of the rest is owned by previous investors SoftBank and Hughes Network Systems.

Hughes will continue work on ground infrastructure and marketing and the original joint venture with Airbus, which designs and manufactures OneWeb satellites, was re-activated and the production lines brought back into service.

The company has new top management. Neil Masterson, who was COO at Thomson Reuters, will be the new CEO at OneWeb and Sunil Bharti Mittal, Founder and Chairman of Bharti, will be the Executive Chairman. The previous CEO, Adrian Steckel, has been appointed Adviser to the Board. Notably, OneWeb founder and previous Executive Chairman Greg Wyler was not mentioned so may not be involved -- perhaps that is related to the shift from the end-user market to government, enterprise, maritime, aviation and other markets that may be less price-sensitive and not require low-cost terminals. (The first million terminals may be costing SpaceX as much as $2,400 each).

OneWeb has permission from the FCC to operate 2,000 satellites -- 720 in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at 1,200 km and 1,280 in medium-Earth orbits at 8,500 km and a 45° inclination. They currently have 74 LEO satellites in near-polar orbit and recently shipped 36 to Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome for a December 17th launch on a Soyuz rocket. (While they have permission to launch 720 LEO satellites, they seem to be only planning to launch 648).

OneWeb's first priority is building out its first-generation broadband network and providing coverage down to about 50 degrees latitude next year and to complete the full constellation the following year. The plan is to begin commercial services starting at the end of 2021 to the UK, Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic Seas.

The company is seeking landing rights in India and Mittal said they plan to begin testing Internet service there in 6-8 months. (Those will be test satellites with intermittent connectivity). The plan is to offer service in India in May/June 2022.

OneWeb is starting over with new partners, assets that had cost the previous company $3.3 billion, and priority spectrum rights, but they are not yet out of the woods.

For a start, they've booked sixteen launches with Arianespace but will need about $2-2.5 billion to complete the constellation.

They have also lost time. They had initially hoped to begin Alaskan service in 2019 and serve the entire state by the end of 2020, and are now far behind that schedule. In the meantime, Telesat, their stiffest competitor for Alaska and the polar region, has made steady progress.

Whiile Bharti's participation gives OneWeb an advantage in terms of distribution and business and government relationships in developing nations in Asia and Africa, they will face stiff Chinese competition in the "Digital Silk Road" nations.

They are also under time pressure to manufacture and launch satellites in order to retain their ITU spectrum rights -- 360 satellites by June 2023 and 720 by June 226. While OneWeb has maintained it's manufacturing joint venture with Airbus, the BBC reports that "components exist for a further three batches of satellites, and the new owners have been busy in recent weeks re-establishing old supply chains to fully ramp up production to pre-bankruptcy levels."

Other than Hughes and Airbus, I don't know which of their prior contracts, MOUs, and relationships are still in force. For example, they had agreements for distribution and cooperation in Alaska, Hawaii, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and surely others I am unaware of.

Finally, there has been discussion of the possibility of OneWeb generating revenue by modifying their satellites to double as a high-precision global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that is difficult to jam or spoof. Mittal told BBC News: "For Generation 2, we will of course have full-scale precise, navigation and timing. And if the UK government wants some other payloads critical to the needs of security, we will do whatever is required." By the time they are ready to launch the next-generation satellites, they may face competition from Xona Space Systems's forthcoming 300-satellite GNSS as well as the possibility of similar offerings by SpaceX.

I hope OneWeb survives and thrives -- billions of people live in unserved areas and competition is good for all.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Starlink will be priced to be affordable

Charging more in affluent markets will increase revenue and tend to reduce the "digital divide" -- good business and good karma.

SpaceX is now serving customers (aka beta testers) in the northern United States. They will soon be doing so in Southern Canada and recently announced that Germany, where they have applied for permission and have begun construction on two ground stations, will probably be next. Early customers in the US are paying $499 for their user terminals and $99 per month for Internet service.

But what about the eventual price in Canada, Germany, or, say, a poorer nation like Cuba? When discussing the plan for Germany, SpaceX vice president Hans Königsmann said the price was not yet determined and "we will focus on what the local market allows." At first, that sounds like something an arrogant monopolist might say, but on second thought it is both good business and good karma.

In Econ 101, pricing is simple. In a competitive market, the price or a product or service will be at the point at which the curves for supply and demand as a function of price intersect. A monopolist will set the price at the point where marginal cost = marginal revenue. Things get trickier in a classic oligopoly and even trickier in a dynamic market like satellite Internet service.

The capacity of a satellite constellation increases as technology improves and as new satellites are launched. Today, SpaceX has only around 800 satellites in service which limits both their coverage area and the number of customers they can serve in a covered area, but they plan to add around 120 satellites per month, have permission for around 12,000 and have requested permission for 30,000 more. Furthermore, the technology deployed in the 12,000th satellite will be more sophisticated and have higher capacity than that in today's satellites and most of those 12.000 satellites will have inter-satellite laser links which will further increase coverage and capacity and reduce the need for terrestrial infrastructure.

The fixed cost of a satellite Internet constellation is high -- satellites are expensive to make and to launch -- but the cost of adding and servicing a new customer is relatively low and the market is global. SpaceX satellites that fly over the southern US will also fly over Cuba, but at $500 for a user terminal and $99 per month Raúl Castro may be the only Cuban customer. Perhaps Cuba could justify shared links at clinics or schools, but the individual market would be essentially zero, and excess capacity on a satellite, while it is flying over Cuba, would be wasted. The price in Cuba should be lower than that in the US in order to fully utilize available capacity.

Prices may or may not remain a flat fee per month, other factors like the political situation and vested interests of terrestrial Internet service providers will affect pricing decisions, and end-users will not be the only customers in a nation, but in general, SpaceX and the other constellation operators will charge more in affluent markets than in poorer markets -- they will try to operate at full capacity everywhere. Charging more in affluent markets will increase revenue and tend to reduce the "digital divide" -- good business and good karma.

Update 2/9/2021

SpaceX has invited the general public to sign up for the Starlink service, stating that "Starlink is available to a limited number of users per coverage area at this time. Orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis." As with Tesla cars, you can reserve a place on the waiting list with a refundable deposit.

I had predicted that they would charge less in poorer nations and, for now at least, Elon has decided to ignore my suggestion, for now, tweeting that "It’s meant to be the same price in all countries. Only difference should be taxes & shipping." (The price of the terminal is $499 in the US and €499 in Germany and the service is $99 and €99).

We may see lower prices in developing nations when the capacity of the constellation is greater, but for now, they will be serving relatively affluent end users and groups that share a connection. It will be interesting to see the prices when they begin serving India, which Elon Musk hopes will be in the middle of this year.

Update 3/12/2021

I found a tweet confirming this pricing strategy. Furthermore, subsidies from local and national governments, non-governmental organizations, foundations, etc. will also help with affordability in low-income nations.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Satellite and space debris tracking as a service

All spacefaring nations must work together on common issues, such as tracking the thousands of pieces of space debris that could stifle the commercialization of space.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

On February 2, 1989, the Soviet Union launched its Cosmos 2004 satellite and the Chinese launched a rocket on December 15, 2009. Cosmos 2004 is now defunct as is the third stage of that Chinese rocket, but both remain in orbit. They were long forgotten until recently when LeoLabs, a satellite tracking service, predicted that they had a good chance of colliding at 971 km over the sea near Antarctica.

It turns out that they did not collide but they came within 11 meters of each other. The two objects have a combined mass of 2,800 kg and were traveling at a relative velocity of 52,900 km/h. Imagine what would have happened had those massive objects collided at that speed. Since they are in a vacuum, the collision would have been silent, but large and small fragments would have been scattered into their own orbits, exponentially increasing the likelihood of future collisions.

The Chinese rocket scientists were not thinking about the possibility of a collision with Cosmos 2004 when they launched their rocket in 2009, but today, with SpaceX and others planning to launch thousands of broadband-service satellites into relatively crowded low-Earth orbit, the debris problem is obvious and daunting, but there are some promising developments. (For more on the extent of space debris click here and here).

Governments have been tracking the orbits of satellites and debris larger than 10 cm for some time but a new company, LeoLabs, is using phased-array radar antennas to track objects as small as 2 cm. In a recent interview, LeoLabs CEO and Co-Founder Daniel Ceperley, said their phased-array radar antennas are capable of tracking the approximately 250,000 orbiting objects that are greater than 2 cm within a 100-meter margin of error.  

LeoLabs antennas can switch direction in one millisecond, but since it is difficult to locate and establish control over satellites with only one or a few observations in the first hours and days after deployment, they offer a Launch and Early Orbit service in which they focus more time on the satellites and SpaceX is using that service.

While the first hours and days after deployment are critical, the risk of a collision persists as long as a satellite is in orbit so LeoLabs also offers a Collision-Avoidance service that will report possible collisions a week in advance and follow up with increasingly more frequent and more accurate notices during the week. This will give satellite operators time to test alternative collision-avoidance maneuvers using LeoLab's interactive maneuver-simulation service.

The Collision-Avoidance service works if a satellite operator is trying to avert a collision with debris or a defunct satellite, but if two active satellites are involved, both parties must be informed and able to communicate about planned maneuvers. SpaceX says Starlink satellites will be able to maneuver autonomously to avoid collisions, but what happens if the approaching satellite also maneuvers in the same direction?

Up to this point, I've been talking about terrestrial tracking of satellites and debris, but tracking can also be done from space. A while ago, I suggested that SpaceX might equip their satellites to detect debris while in orbit and they have some autonomous collision avoidance capability, but as far as I know, they have no plans for offering collision avoidance data or service to others.

Northstar, a space-based Canadian startup, plans to track satellites from orbit. They have contracted for three satellites that will be in polar orbits at an altitude of 575 kilometers and plan to launch at least three more batches of three each in different orbits by 2024.

Like LeoLabs, Northstar plans to offer tracking as a service. While Northstar is several years behind LeoLabs, it will use different technology. If successful, Northstar plans to track satellites from low-Earth to geostationary orbits. They will be able to use optical scanners since there are no problems with the atmosphere and weather in space and will have a wide view, enabling them to revisit objects frequently and quickly and accurately predict orbits.

The investment and operating costs may also be different than those of LeoLabs, but I don't know whether it will have cost more to build and operate the 12 LEO satellites Northstar plans to orbit in 2024 or the six radar tracking stations LeoLabs will have in operation next year.

(NorthStar and ExoAnalytic, which tracks satellites and debris with terrestrial optical telescopes, announced a partnership in April 2019, evidently intending to combine their observations, but there is no further mention of that on their Web sites and Northstar has changed it's business model which initially called for dual-use satellites combining both Earth observation and satellite tracing.)

As shown below, many nations now launch, own, and/or operate satellites. (The map is as of 2016 but the database at the site included 68 nations as of August 1, 2020). Whether the tracking is done from the ground or space, it is clear that global data must be shared and collision-avoidance protocols invented, standardized, and perhaps automated. (Holger Krag, director of the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Safety Programme Office hopes to like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023).

Achieving global space law and regulation like we have for the seas seems like an impossible technical and political challenge -- exacerbated by the fact that many satellites and tracking services, like the recently completed US "Space Fence," are operated by military and security organizations -- but it must be done. There has already been a close miss between a Starlink satellite and Aeolus, an ESA satellite, in which a software bug led to a communication breakdown between the ESA and SpaceX.

I am amazed to find myself agreeing with and quoting a member of Trump's cabinet, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who said "all spacefaring nations must work together on common issues, such as tracking the thousands of pieces of space debris that could stifle the commercialization of space."

Update 4/27/2021

The Union of Concerned Scientists has updated the satellite database mentioned above. As of January 1 2021, 72 nations have launched and/or operated satellites and there were 3,732 in orbit. The need for global regulation and collaboration will increase rapidly as SpaceX and other low-Earth orbit satellite companies and governments launch mega-constellations.

Update 6/4/2021 

LeoLabs has received an investment of $65 million to add build new tracking stations and add services. The company was also named one of the 10 most innovative space companies of 2021 by Fast Company and their service was named the best space product of 2020 by Forbes Magazine.