Why SpaceX And Amazon Are Launching 42,000+ Satellites
Since the start of the space age, more than 8,800 objects have been launched into Earth's orbit. But in a few years, that number could increase significantly. Private companies plan to launch tens of thousands of
satellitesinto space to beam internet to customers on Earth. Elon Musk's SpaceX alone has announced plans to launch 42,000
satellitesas part of its Starlink internet project. If this happens, SpaceX will, by itself, be responsible for about a fivefold increase in the number of spacecraft launched by all of humanity. Technically, a satellite refers to any object that orbits another, larger object in space, like the Earth orbiting the sun. But when we talk about
satellites, we usually think about manmade
satellites. The first manmade satellite launched into space was called Sputnik and it was about the size of a beach ball. This is Russia on October 4th, 1957. On the
launchingpad is Sputnik Assembly First. Freely translated to mean 'traveling companion to the Earth.' The Soviet Union is
launchingthe first Earth satellite. Sputnik signaled the beginning of the space race. And since then, we've been
launchingmore and more objects into orbit. Now, companies such as SpaceX,
Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb want to launch thousands of
satellitesto make what they call megaconstellations. A megaconstellation is a network that has hundreds, or even thousands of
satellitesall orbiting and working together in a complete system. The reason these companies are...
pursuing these megaconstellations comes down to essentially two factors. One is that the cost of hardware for these types of
satelliteshas come down and they've shrunk in size considerably. And the second is because there's an increasing demand for data all around the world. So providing high-speed data to any point on earth is an increasingly valuable asset.
Satellitesthat provide internet are not necessarily a new idea. Companies like Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat are already beaming internet to rural parts of the planet that are not served by fiber cable connections. About 49 percent of global households are still not connected to the internet. And these are the people that traditional satellite companies have tried to reach. 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 out of our more than a hundred million households that utilize satellite internet. One big issue with current satellite networks has been latency. Traditional
satellitesorbit very far away from the Earth. And that distance increases the overall latency in the network. Latency is the responsiveness of the network. So if you are streaming something online, it's how quickly something loads or how smoothly it runs. Most internet
satellitestoday operate in what's called 'geostationary orbit,'...
which is around 36,000 kilometers above Earth's surface and remain fixed on top of one area. But the satellite systems that SpaceX, OneWeb,
Amazonand Telesat are proposing will operate in what is called 'low Earth orbit,' or between 180-2,000 kilometers above Earth's surface. In theory, this should cut down on the latency issues, with speeds up to 20 times faster than current GEO
satellites. But to get the same coverage with LEO
satellites, you need more of them. The speed of transmission of light in fiber is 40 percent slower than it is in air or vacuum. So in fact, you can build a quite extensive low Earth orbit satellite network and have very fast communications capability because they're lower. You actually need more of them to cover an effective area, right? They just can't see all the parts of the Earth. So our higher orbiting
satellitesused to be able to get away with a much smaller number of actual orbiting vehicles, whereas these new, lower earth orbit constellations do require more. However, there's more to it than that. They also need to have adequate power. And if they're going to provide lots of people with connectivity, they need to have lots of capacity. Hence, you need more
satellitesto do that. Whether having, you know, 10,20 thousand or more
satellitesorbiting is warranted for any of these, is still yet to be seen.
Satellitesstill need something back on Earth to receive their signals. Beyond building the
these megaconstellations, these companies will also have to invest in heavy amounts of infrastructure on the ground. That will look like thousands or even millions of antenna all around the world to receive the signal from the
satellitesand distribute it to consumers on the ground. Plans to offer internet from space may sound familiar as both Facebook and Google have considered developing these kinds of
satellitesbefore. But Facebook hasn't announced anything in over a year since talking about its Athena satellite. And Google is one of the main investors in SpaceX's system. So they're expected to look very closely at how Starlink is developed. The top companies pursuing megaconstellations are tech giants SpaceX and
Amazon, as well as satellite builders OneWeb and Telesat. . The leader in this category, at least by quantity of
satelliteslaunched, is SpaceX, as they've launched 120 of their Starlink
satellitesso far this year and are set to launch another 60 very soon. And we have confirmation of deploy. You can hear the team in the background. This is an incredible moment for SpaceX. You can see those flat-packed Starlink
satellitesslowly gliding away from the top of the second stage. This is the highest number of
satellitesthat SpaceX has ever deployed in a single time. SpaceX's utilization of its renewable Falcon 9 rocket dramatically decreases the cost of sending
satellitesinto space. FCC documents show that SpaceX expects Starlink to become...
operational once at least 800
satellitesare deployed. The main value of Starlink is providing low latency, high bandwidth access to sparse and moderately sparse, like a relatively low density areas. It's probably able to serve like three to five percent of people in the world. SpaceX began with the idea to launch 12,000
satellites. But in October 2019, the company requested permission for an additional 30,000. SpaceX has also put in a request with the FCC for up to 1 million Earth stations, which end-user customers will utilize to communicate with its
satellites. The U.S. Air Force is also testing Starlink's
satelliteson its military planes and has so far reported favorable results. SpaceX has said that it will begin offering internet service by 2020. Hot on SpaceX's heels is OneWeb, which is already building its own
satellites, having launched six earlier this year. We've done a joint venture with Airbus and we have a factory at Cape Canaveral and we've really set up a supply chain and we're using the same satellite over and over again to populate our system. And we're going to produce 650 for the first layer of capacity, which will be for global coverage. But we'll go all the way up to 2,000. Like SpaceX, OneWeb has its own set of big name backers, including Softbank and British business magnate Richard Branson. OneWeb says each of its
satellitescost about $1 billion to produce. But unlike SpaceX, OneWeb must depend on Russian-built, Soyuz...
rockets to launch its
satellites. Unlike OneWeb and SpaceX,
Amazonhas yet to launch any
satellites, and is early in developing, as it's still seeking regulatory approval for its project Kuiper Network.
Amazon's Project Kuiper plans to launch a total of 3,236
satellitesinto low-Earth orbit. Back in April 2019,
Amazonhired the former leader of SpaceX's satellite program to run Project Kuiper after Musk fired him. According to reports, Musk had become frustrated with the pace of Starlink's development. Though it's behind on building
Amazonalready has a head start on ground infrastructure. In November 2019, the company announced AWS Ground Station, a new business unit that will build twelve satellite facilities around the world to provide the vital link needed to transmit data to and from
satellitesin orbit. Plus, although technically a different company, Jeff Bezos' , Blue Origin would be the obvious choice to launch these
satellites. Also in the mix is Canadian satellite builder Telesat, which has received significant investment thus far but hasn't launched any
satellitesyet. They're negotiating with companies that would build their network, which is estimated to cost about $3 billion. Astronomers are now very concerned about this new, large constellations that are being launched. The number that are planned would exceed all
satelliteslaunched to date. And the real challenge here is not necessarily the number of new launches....
It's the brightness, how bright these things will be. That they will saturate our detectors and cause all sorts of difficulties in astronomical observing. This image, taken from a telescope in Chile in November 2019, illustrates the concerns from astronomers. The telescope, meant to see images of distant stars and galaxies, instead captured the light trails of 19 Starlink
satellites. Some astronomers took to Twitter to express their concerns after SpaceX launched the first 60 Starlink
satellitesback in May 2019. summarizedAfter astronomers raised these concerns, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said in a tweet that his company would look at how they can decrease the brightness of these Starlink
satellites. SpaceX president, Gwen Shotwell, also told reporters in December 2019 that they planned to address the issue. SpaceX will put a special coating on the bottom of one of the
satelliteson its third launch to test if that will decrease the satellite's brightness. We have monthly telecons with SpaceX engineers to discuss these things. The LLST project in Chile also has another set of telecons with them on a regular basis to try to address these issues. There's been no action taken yet, but you know, we're hopeful that that something will change. The company says that they're committed to keeping the night sky dark. These
satellitescould also impact radio astronomy. In a statement following the first launch of Starlink's
satellites, the International Astronomical...
Union summarized their concerns saying, 'despite notable efforts to avoid interfering with radio astronomy frequencies, aggregate radio signals emitted from the satellite constellations can still threaten astronomical observations at radio wavelengths. Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole or understanding more about the formation of planetary systems were only possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio sky from interference.'. Another major concern is debris. This summarized by a theory called the Kessler Syndrome, which posits that when two objects collide in space, they generate more debris that then collides with other objects, creating even more shrapnel and litter until the entirety of Earth's lower orbit is impassible. This hypothetical scenario came to life in February of 2009 when an inactive Russian communications satellite Cosmo's 2251 collided with an active commercial communication satellite operated by .U.S.-based Iridium Satellite. The incident produced around 2,000 pieces of debris. Debris is particularly important considering that SpaceX, OneWeb and
Amazonhave all said that their
satelliteswould have a lifespan of only 5-7 years, which is about half the lifespan of traditional
satellites. When the companies are finished with the
satellitesor they fail in orbit, they plan to de-orbit them, which means that the
satelliteswould be intentionally pushed back into the Rarth's...
atmosphere, where they would burn up during reentry. One of the key questions facing this industry is who regulates these megaconstellations. And that's a gray area. We don't have a mandate to approve or reject any space activity of any sovereign government or of any company. Companies are under the jurisdiction of the state in which they're located. It's incumbent upon those states to put in place a system of authorization and continuing supervision. In the United States, the authority to regulate these
satellitesfalls largely on the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is in charge of radio frequency distribution and mitigating any debris that may result from these
satellites. Under Ajit Pai, the FCC has been eager to work with these companies. At a 1.6 million foot view, you might say we see an industry that is changing quickly in space. And we are trying to make sure that our regulations change with it. A Byzantine licensing and regulatory approval system could be a bottleneck that hurts consumers and innovators alike. And that makes a difference because now, a satellite can be built in a matter of months, or weeks, or even days in some cases, and launched by a private provider on demand. And that's why under my leadership, the FCC has been committed to matching the tempo of the industry that we regulate. Our space agenda involves cutting red tape and giving green lights. In the same speech, Pai promised that the FCC would do a comprehensive...
review of its orbital debris rules to address recent market developments. Other U.S. regulators also include the Air Force, the FAA, and in some cases, NOAA. The Air Force maintains the official catalog of objects on orbit that the United States uses to avoid conjunctions and close approaches on orbit. The FAA controls the launch licenses, and if you have a camera looking down on it, then you would need a license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. The connectivity market around the world is certainly well north of a trillion dollars. Of course, you have to look at what the addressable market is for each of these companies. They won't be competing very effectively in many cases with your local mobile phone provider or maybe your fiber to the home provider if you're lucky enough to live in one of those areas. But for areas where there aren't a lot of good options or maybe no options today, this is going to be an attractive opportunity. However, the caution is that there really is a limit to what many people in the world can pay for internet. You know, if you live in an area where you lack clean water or maybe don't have a consistent food supply, having internet service may not be your first priority. We're 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're also working with partners. And those partners are governments and they're also...
terrestrial mobile operators that want to extend their networks. And then when we think about what we're trying to do as our social mission, which is to connect everyone, I mean, the best sort of line about the company is, OneWeb one world. We want everybody to be connected. Still, some more established satellite companies are not buying into the hype of low Earth orbit megaconstellations. ViaSat currently serves around 600,000 residential customers in the U.S. and Europe and is
launchinga new geostationary satellite that it expects to be in service globally by 2022. The reason that we've focused on GEOs is that GEOs seem to be able to deliver more bandwidth and more speed at lower cost, and that's what our end users want. There's also a number of really important risks that are still to be dealt with in the LEO environment. A lot of that is regulatory risk. It's not clear that any individual company or country will be able to scale safely to the number of
satellitesthat are being envisioned. And without that scale, there's a big question about how economically viable these systems will be. And the other really big issue is the geographic distribution of demand. When you do a LEO system, you have to have your
satellitesdistributed according to orbital characteristics, not according to the demand on the ground. During a media call in May of 2019, Elon Musk estimated that Starlink could bring in revenue of $30 billion a year and would be key to fund...
his vision of colonizing Mars. Experts agree that estimate is not far fetched. We think that the satellite constellations can be tremendously profitable. There's a significant upfront cost to