A few satellites just don’t do the job anymore. Satellite constellations were created to meet the demand for global connectedness and the incredible amount of data required to keep us up and running. The goal is to have a constellation provide consistent coverage for a service (i.e., GPS or the Internet) to all parts of the globe, simultaneously.
The idea of a distributed network of synchronous satellites in orbit providing a single service was economically and technologically infeasible more than two decades ago (Levchenko 2020, 1012). It seems like the government actors with big paychecks are no longer on the cutting edge either. Commercial actors are taking advantage of advancements in the manufacturing process, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology to create novel constellation services that, despite being incredibly convoluted, outperform any traditional satellite services.
Private Actors and Satellite Constellation
The interests of private actors in space have turned to the concept of satellite constellations due to their increased capacity for communication speed and ability to provide remote access to users worldwide. Traditionally, satellites in GEO had the upper hand in communications because their orbit time is closer in sync with Earth’s rotation (Kodheli 2021, 71). With the cost of access to space lowering due to private space launch vehicles, over two hundred commercial actors have launched their constellations or are planning to by 2024 (Kulu 2021). Most commercial actors have planned a maximum of 200 satellites in their constellations.
SpaceX is the outlier on the list, with over 3000 satellites in orbit for their first generation of Starlink Satellites as of August 2022. The company aims to dot the night sky with nearly 12,000 satellites to allow Starlink to deliver high broadband internet to any location on Earth with very low latency.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellites alone would rank third on the list of actors with active space payloads – behind the US and Russia. The US is liable for any damages or issues that might occur should a Starlink satellite interfere with another.
The issue of crowding and collision is partially being mitigated. Presently, Starlink has successfully deorbited dozens of its satellites. The company claims to be on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation and claims that they out-perform all industry standards (Hoggins 2019). Starlink intentionally shortened its satellites’ lifespan to allow for proper disposal by incineration in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Future of Orbital Debris?
Constellations will increase human connectedness and Earth monitoring, but they come with the price of crowding Earth’s orbits. Satellites function precariously close to one another in a constellation, creating many opportunities for a chain effect of collisions. While active satellites are likely safe from collision with other properly working satellites, these thousands of new satellites will always be threatened by inactive space junk. Satellite constellations are the main contributor to the projected influx of orbital objects in the near future. At least with constellations, national-level space agencies will no longer lead the way in providing the necessary experience and oversight that leads to strong regulation. Regulation means safe and clean orbits. Encroachment by the commercial sector could see profit incentives threaten the long-term sustainability of Earth’s orbits and create geopolitical uncertainty.
Hoggins, 2019. Fears over space junk after Elon Musk launches 60 Starlink internet satellites.
Kodheli, O., Lagunas, E., Maturo, N., Sharma, S.K., Shankar, B., Montoya, J.F.M., Duncan, J.C.M., Spano, D., Chatzinotas, S., Kisseleff, S., Querol, J., Lei, L., Vu, T.X., Goussetis, G., 2021. Satellite Communications in the New Space Era: A Survey and Future Challenges. IEEE Commun. Surv. Tutorials 23, 70–109.
Kulu, E., n.d. Satellite Constellations . NewSpace Index.
Levchenko, I., Xu, S., Wu, Y.-L., Bazaka, K., 2020. Hopes and concerns for astronomy of satellite constellations. Nat Astron 4, 1012–1014.