Why in the next decade companies will launch thousands more satellites than in all of history

FAN Editor

If a handful of space companies succeed, the next decade will see more satellites put into orbit around the Earth than all the satellites launched since Sputnik 1 in 1957.

While SpaceX makes up the lion’s share of these plans, together with OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the four companies have announced the intention to launch as many as 46,100 satellites in the next few years. That’s more than five times the amount of objects sent to space in the past 60 years, which numbers just shy of 9,000 according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Satellites providing internet are not the only ones that will be launched en masse over the next decade, to be clear. Thanks to the decrease in both size and cost of satellites, as well as a surge in investment, hundreds of other small satellites for a variety of purposes are expected to be launched.

But satellite networks with internet speeds comparable to Earth-bound fiber optic networks would be very lucrative. While a group of satellites in a network is typically called a constellation, these planned fleets of hundreds or even thousands of satellites have been informally dubbed “megaconstellations.”

Megaconstellations would focus on providing internet access to rural areas. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there are about 14 million rural Americans, as well as 1.2 million Americans on tribal lands, who do not have access to even the slowest mobile broadband services.

“Today, there are only a small number of consumer internet offerings over satellite. They tend to be more expensive and they also tend to have fairly low numbers of users. In the United States, there are only about 2 million customers,” PwC telecommunications consultant Dan Hayes told CNBC.

The current major U.S. players in internet broadband are ViaSat and Hughes Network Systems. But their satellites orbit very far away from Earth and that distance increases the overall latency, or response time, in the network. The megaconstellations plan to operate in low Earth orbit (or LEO) to reduce latency. But to get as much coverage, you then need many more LEO satellites to cover the surface.

Watch above to see CNBC’s look at these companies’ plans, as well as the hurdles and issues that come with building and operating a megaconstellation. Read below for more on each of the four companies.

SpaceX’s Starlink

SpaceX has launched 120 Starlink satellites this year and, over the next few weeks, plans to launch another 120 satellites.

Starlink’s original license was for about 12,000 satellites, but in October the company requested permission for an additional 30,000 satellites from the FCC – bringing its potential full size to about 42,000. The FCC passed that request onto the ITU, a UN entity tasked with coordinating spectrums for satellite operators at the international level.

A stack of 60 SpaceX Starlink satellites float in orbit above the Earth.

SpaceX

Elon Musk’s company makes use of its reusable Falcon 9 rockets to reduce the costs of launching the satellites. FCC documents show SpaceX expects Starlink to become operational once about 800 satellites are operating in orbit.

The US Air Force is already testing Starlink satellites on aircraft, reporting early favorable results.

Additionally, SpaceX submitted an application this year to operate 1 million “earth stations” in the U.S., key to connecting the satellites to the ground.

While SpaceX has not explicitly said how much it expects the full Starlink system will cost, the company has steadily been fundraising. This year SpaceX has raised over $1.3 billion in new funding, with recent investor Ontario Teachers noting the future growth potential of Starlink.

But while it will likely require billions of dollars to create the infrastructure for Starlink, the company is optimistic on its potential demand and revenue. Musk in May estimated that Starlink could bring in revenue of $30 billion a year – or about 10 times the highest annual revenue it expects from its core rocket business.

Musk said SpaceX does not think it is “going to be displacing” traditional, ground-based telecommunications networks with Starlink. Instead, he thinks the space-based network “will actually work well” with telecommunications companies because it reaches sparsely populated regions. While Starlink “has not signed up any customers,” Musk said SpaceX is talking to “possible strategic partners,” such as telecommunications companies.

OneWeb

The Arianespace Soyuz rocket carrying the first six satellites for OneWeb.

OneWeb

OneWeb sent its first six satellites to space in February but has largely been quiet since then. Backed by a host of investors including Softbank, the company plans to launch a megaconstellation of about 650 satellites.

Several years in development, the company has raised more than $3.4 billion to fund the effort.

But its plans to launch about 30 satellites per launch have been delayed, as the company says it doesn’t expect its next launch to happen until January. Then OneWeb plans to begin launching monthly, having contracted through Europe’s Arianespace, which will use Russian-built Soyuz rockets to put OneWeb’s satellites in orbit.

With a manufacturing facility near Cape Canaveral, Florida, the company says it will be able to build as many as two satellites a day. OneWeb said each satellite costs about $1 million to manufacture.

OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel explained the first part of his company’s strategy in an interview with CNBC in March.

“We are going to work first on the verticals where there are people right now willing to pay a lot, in airplanes and on boats. And then we are also working with partners. And those partners are governments and also terrestrial mobile operators that want to extend their networks,” Steckel said.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper

Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce giant is early in developing its megaconstellation. Unlike SpaceX and OneWeb, Amazon has yet to launch a satellite, but it’s seeking regulatory approval for its Project Kuiper network, which would be a megaconstellation of 3,236 satellites.

“This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision,” Amazon said in a statement to CNBC in April

Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Amazon hired the former leader of SpaceX’s satellite program, to run Project Kuiper after Musk fired him. Musk had become frustrated with the pace of Stalink’s development but Bezos brought on the former Starlink VP to lead his team.

Amazon has yet to announce where the satellites will be manufactured and given the time it typically takes to get regulatory approval for similar networks, it appears Bezos’ project is at least two or three years behind Musk

Though it is behind on building satellites, Amazon already has a headstart on ground infrastructure. In November 2019, the company announced AWS Ground Station, a new business unit that will build 12 satellite facilities around the world to provide the vital link needed to transmit data to and from satellites in orbit.

Telesat

Also in the mix is Canadian satellite builder Telesat, which has received significant investment but, like Amazon, has yet to launch any satellites. Telesat is negotiating with companies that would build its network, which is estimated to cost about $3 billion.

Telesat’s megaconstellation is designed to be about 300 satellites, aiming to begin offering regional service in 2022 and global service in 2023.

Telesat has picked Blue Origin, Bezos’ space company, as well as 3D printing rocket builder Relativity Space, to launch its satellites.

Telesat has selected our powerful New Glenn rocket to launch Telesat’s innovative LEO satellite constellation into space.

Telesat

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