Thursday, February 03, 2022

Update on China SatNet's GuoWang broadband constellation -- can they do it?

In 2020, China applied to operate GuoWang, a constellation of 12,992 low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband Internet satellites, and in 2021, it became clear that it was intended to become China's global LEO broadband constellation. Can they do it? Maybe, but it will take a long time.

Launch capability

Chinese launch startups (source)
China does not have the capacity to launch 12,992 satellites today. I don't know the mass of their planned satellites, but GuoWang is informally referred to as China's answer to Starlink. Starlink's version 1 satellites were 262 kg each and version 2 is said to be between 800 and 1,250 kg. If, say, the GuoWang satellites turn out to weigh 500 kg, the constellation would require 260 launches using China's most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, assuming no failures and ignoring replacement, and it would be 867 launches using the forthcoming, reusable Long March 8.
But times are changing. In a recent DongFang Hour podcast, Jean Deville said there are about twenty new commercial launch companies in China, and they were raising an unprecedented amount of money. While none of these is in the class of SpaceX's Starship, which they say will be able to launch >100 tons to LEO, China's forthcoming Long March 9 is being designed to launch 150 tons to LEO. (Elon Musk tweeted that they might be able to get it up to ~150 tons in a reusable Starship).
Launching and maintaining a constellation of 12,992 satellites would require a coalition of commercial startups and/or the Long March 9. (In an idealistic, united world one could imagine iconoclastic Elon Musk offering to launch GuoWang satellites using Starships).

Satellite manufacture

GalaxySpace satellite "super factory" (source)
As of last September, China only had 431 satellites in orbit. Chinese state-owned enterprises clearly do not have the capacity to produce and maintain satellites for a mega constellation. As with launch, one or perhaps a coalition of private companies could be called upon to manufacture GuoWang satellites. 

As Deville put it, "2022 could be year one of the significant if not massive deployment of Chinese small satellites." He cited the example of the completion of the GalaxySpace satellite production line at their "super factory" in Nantong and showed the first six broadband communication satellites that were just completed. He also described several other satellite manufacturing companies including auto manufacturer Geely, which has a factory capable of producing 500 satellites per year and deep mass production experience.

Optical links and ground infrastructure

Inter-satellite optical links are a priority for LEO constellations -- they will reduce latency and the need for ground stations -- and China has relatively poor access to global ground infrastructure. As with launch and satellite manufacture, there are promising optical communication start-ups, but China lags established companies like Mynaric and Tesat and is precluded from using their products by the current technology cold war and Xi's Made in China 2025 policy. 

Optical links between satellites and the ground could compensate in part for a lack of radio-frequency ground stations and China's recently released Five-year Perspective white paper says they have tested satellite-ground laser communication. Ground station load can also be reduced by relaying data through geostationary satellites and the Five-year Perspective includes a commitment to a coordinated multi-orbit communication system.

Amazon offers ground-station serviceAWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions offers space/terrestrial systems consulting service and Microsoft offers Azure Orbital ground station service, which enables satellite access to its Azure cloud services. Will Chinese Web services and terrestrial infrastructure companies integrate with GuoWang?

Politics

Belt and Road nations, January 2021 (source)
GuoWang is behind SpaceX Starlink and nearly as far behind the OneWeb, Telesat, and Amazon Kuiper constellations, but the political division between China and the US may protect it enough to survive. Starlink service will not be allowed in China, and they will discourage it in nations that participate in their Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and GuoWang service will not be allowed in the United States or nations with which we are closely allied. 

This division shields GuoWang from competitive market pressure and it locks in global waste and economic inefficiency by ensuring that LEO constellations will be able to route traffic but will otherwise be idle while orbiting over "enemy" nations. 

I've reviewed three areas in which GuoWang needs to catch up, but GuoWang, Starlink and the other would-be broadband Internet service providers also face joint constraints like LEO debris and spectrum scarcity, (Note that SpaceX has also applied to launch 30,000 more broadband satellites). Optical links between constellations and the ground may relax the spectrum constraint if inter-satellite routing algorithms are climate-sensitive but global collaboration is needed to deal with debris, collision avoidance, and spectrum scarcity.

GuoWang is facing an uphill battle. If SpaceX and the others do not go bankrupt, they will have been operating for years before GuoWang completes a 12,992-satellite constellation. On the other hand, the Chinese government has given GuoWang high priority, their lunar, Martian, and space station programs started long after ours, and China plans to "build a satellite communications network with high and low orbit coordination" within the next five years.

Update 2/22/2022

GuoWang got political affirmation recently when China Satnet signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Shanghai Municipal Government. (Like state governments in the US, Chinese municipal governments often support commercial efforts). Satnet is a state-owned enterprise, but its executives visited commercial satellite constellation operator Guodian Gaoke signaling openness to cooperation with Chinese commercial space firms. 

It seems clear now that GuoWang will be China's global broadband provider, not Hongyun and Hongyan, less ambitious broadband constellation projects of powerful state-owned enterprises CASC and CASIC.

Update 3/13/2022

The Dongfang Hour reports that the Long March 9 will not be ready to launch for 8-10 years. How many satellites will GuoWang's competitors have in orbit by then? They also reported that the six broadband communication satellites mentioned above were launched. The satellites have a mass of 190kg and a throughput of 40 Gbps.

Several companies are ramping up to build satellites, so a coalition may be able to equip GuoWang, but launch capacity seems to be an even more significant constraint. Either way, they have a long way to go. Here's a wild dream -- SpaceX could launch GuoWang satellites. Elon Musk has been known to help competitors -- he put 249 Tesla patents in the public domain in 2014.

Update 7/22/2022

As we saw earlier, the Long March 9 was expected to be ready for launch in 8-10 years, but a revised design is being considered. Andrew Jones reports that Long Lehao, a veteran chief designer of the Long March rocket series, presented plans for a new reusable methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicle to be ready in 2035. He described a two-stage rocket capable of launching 150 tons to low-Earth orbit. That sounds a lot like SpaceX Starship, but without mention of the launch/land pad with "chopstick" arms to capture a returning booster.


Presentation on the revised Long March 9 (source)

There is no doubt that China is paying attention to and is way behind SpaceX's Starship development. If Starship succeeds, Elon Musk may have an apartment on Mars by 2035 :-).

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