Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Two new Chinese Internet service constellations and their market

China's G60 Science and Technology Innovation Corridor, the home of two new Internet-service mega-constellations

Chinese plans for low-Earth orbit Internet service constellations began with two projects, Hongyun  (156 satellites) and Hongyan (864 satellites). These were eventually sidelined for Guowang, an ambitious, 12,992 satellite constellation that is expected to begin launching satellites this year. But, that is old news.

China's five-year plan designates satellite Internet as a strategic emerging industry and two new constellations have emerged, G60 (12,000 satellites) and Honghu-3 (10,000 satellites). 

Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology (SSST), aka Yuanxin Satellite, located in Shanghai's Songjiang district, was founded in 2018 and launched two test satellites in 2019. SSST recently raised 6.7 billion yuan ($943 million) from several sources for its 12,000 satellite G60 (aka Qianfan) low Earth orbit (LEO) Internet service constellation. (Also see this excellent context video). 

Their first phase constellation, called Sailspace, will consist of 1,296 satellites. Regional service will be provided by 648 satellites by the end of 2025 global service will be provided by 648 additional satellites by the end of 2027. By 2030, they hope to have 15,000 satellites in orbit and offer direct-to-mobile service. Shanghai Gesi Aerospace has begun production of the G60 satellites and expects to produce 300/year. (Also see). I've not heard any news about Guowang lately -- it feels like G60 has taken the lead. (Also see).

The satellites will orbit at 1,160 km, which is higher than all the other announced LEO satellite competitors except Telesat. While this will increase latency, collision risk, satellite lifespan, handoff frequency, and coverage footprint should improve. 

Like SSST, Shanghai Landspace Hongqing Technology Co, Ltd. (aka Hongqing Technology) is located in the Songjian District and is planning a third Internet service constellation. The May 24th ITU filing lists the satellite name as "HONGHU-3," but specifies a constellation of 10,000 satellites in 160 orbital planes. Since they have launched two satellites previously, the constellation may simply be called "Honghu." They are constructing a satellite manufacturing facility in Wuxi City near Shanghai. The Chinese launch company Landspace owns 48% so, like SpaceX, they may launch their own satellites.

It is not a coincidence that both Honghu and G60 are being developed in the G60 Science and Technology Innovation Corridor between Highway G60 and a high-speed railway line in the Yangtze River Delta (Also see). Local governments play a major role in funding and developing Chinese industry. Shanghai has published "The Shanghai Action Plan to Promote Commercial Space Development and Create a Space Information Industry Highland (2023-2025)".

Can China support three Internet service constellations?

Planned Starships (source)
These companies are commonly touted as China's answer to Starlink, but they are far behind Starlink in launch cost and rate, rocket and engine manufacturing, international licensing, marketing, etc. The gap will widen when SpaceX's Starship is in production, increasing the ability to launch full and mini v2 satellites and whatever comes after that.

However, the success of these companies will not depend solely on catching or competing with Starlink because of global politics. The Chinese companies will not compete with Starlink or any of its Western competitors for Chinese government and military business. (The Ukraine war has demonstrated both the military value of satellite Internet and the drawback of being dependent on a private company).

Starlink will not offer service in countries like China, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, or Iran. Similarly, the Chinese companies will be prohibited from operating in countries like the US and European nations which currently ban or restrict Huawei equipment. Whether motivated by a desire to encourage domestic industry, promote security, or achieve and maintain technological self-reliance, market separation is increasing, 

Belt and Road participant nations (source)
However, there are many nations where these Chinese companies will compete with Starlink and its Western competitors. The Chinese companies will have an advantage in nations participating in the Belt and Road Initiative -- home to about 70% of the world population and 40% of global GDP. The Chinese advantage is even greater in the 26 Digital Silk Road nations.

Update 6/27/2024

China is expected to launch the first 18 G60 satellites in early August. The launch vehicle was not specified, but "the Long March 6A would be the most capable option from Taiyuan in terms of capacity to low Earth orbit and payload fairing."

The Long March 6A has a carrying capacity to orbit of 4,500 kg, which could accommodate 18 250 kg satellites, around the mass of the first generation SpaceX Starlink satellites, but significantly less than the V2-mini satellites Starlink is currently launching. SpaceX is currently testing its forthcoming Starship rocket which will launch full V2 satellites. 

While China lags far behind SpaceX, G60 seems to be moving faster than Hongyun and Gwowang and will be launching satellites sooner than Project Kuiper or Telesat.

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