Constellations of hundreds of small, interconnected satellites are increasingly being deployed to provide internet connectivity to remote and rural areas, environmental monitoring services and asset tracking. This report, which is the second in a sequence of three on mega-constellations, explores why these networks of satellites are deployed. It also profiles several existing and proposed constellations, including those being rolled out by companies that have recently listed in the United States via the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) route.
Bridging the digital divide
Using satellites to provide connectivity to remote parts of the Earth’s surface and for remote observation applications is nothing new. However, while satellites historically have been launched into geostationary orbits (GEOs) so that one large, complex satellite can cover almost one-third of the Earth’s surface, newer constellations deploy smaller satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), much closer to the Earth’s surface. Operating in LEO removes latency issues when sending large amounts of internet data and is critical to other activities such as controlling an autonomous vehicle, online gaming and stock trading. Constellations of LEO satellites are being deployed to reach the estimated four billion people globally still without internet access.
Emergence of mega-constellations
Many more LEO satellites are required than GEO ones to provide similar coverage of the Earth’s surface. The shift to LEOs is thus driving a rapid increase in the number of satellites launched each year. Until 2019, which is when SpaceX started to launch its Starlink satellites into LEO, the highest number of satellites launched in a single year was 143 in 1967. However, nearly 1,200 satellites were launched in 2020, and 1,778 satellites and spacecraft in 2021. Driven by the deployment of mega-constellations, this accelerated rate of satellite launches is expected to continue over the next decade. For this to happen, the cost of building and launching satellite platforms and their payloads needs to be substantially reduced, so that provision of services via mega-constellations of LEO satellites is economically viable. The third and final report in this series will explore how the space industry is adapting to this challenge.
We have not attempted to provide an exhaustive list of companies involved in the satellite market in this report. Instead, we provide profiles of the five projects (Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Guo Wang/China SatNet, OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink and Telesat’s Lightspeed) that are collectively expected to account for over half of the satellites launched over the next decade and five companies (AST SpaceMobile, BlackSky, Planet Labs, Satellogic and Spire Global) that have listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2021 and in 2022 so far via merger with a SPAC.