All-seeing eye in the sky

Why governments are going into orbit

Governments are increasingly investing in constellations of many interconnected small satellites. There are many reasons for doing this, including obtaining timely information about military threats on a global basis, supporting humanitarian rescue efforts, monitoring climate change and preventing illegal trade. This report, the first in a sequence of three on mega-constellations, explores the drivers behind this transition and profiles several of the proposed constellations.

Emergence of mega-constellations

Governments have been using satellites to monitor activity on the Earth’s surface and in its atmosphere, particularly enemy activity since the dawn of space flight. Typically, surveillance satellites are relatively large and expensive, for example US KH-11 satellites weigh between 13,500kg and 17,000kg and cost more than US$1bn each. This means there are insufficient satellites to provide real-time global coverage, so it can take several hours to collect and transmit information for decision makers. This delay is fine for monitoring weather patterns, but not for alerting on potential missile attacks. Latency (the time it takes a signal to travel from the ground to a satellite and back) is also a problem. In addition, now that China and Russia have demonstrated that they both have the capability to destroy satellites, basing a surveillance system on relatively few highly expensive assets presents a big security risk. As a result, governments are planning constellations composed of tens or hundreds of smaller, less expensive (c US$9m) low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide real-time information on threats. Using a network of many smaller satellites connected with optical communications links also means that it is possible to transmit all of the data collected by surveillance satellites, which is not possible at present.

Dedicated government constellations supplemented with commercial activity

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is planning a mega-constellation of nearly 1,000 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites interconnected via optical communications links to provide the military with timely threat information. The first batch of satellites intended to demonstrate some of the technology that will be deployed in the proposed constellation was launched in 2021. China and Russia have also announced their own mega-constellations. In addition, governments are supplementing the services provided by their own dedicated constellations with capacity provided by commercial operations. For example, OneWeb is offering communications services to ‘armed forces, peacekeeping, emergency responders, intelligence and security agencies’. BlackSky, Planet Lab and Spire Global, all of which listed on the New Stock Exchange last year through mergers into special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are providing governments with remote monitoring data.

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