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Expectations versus reality: Commercial-satellite constellations

Commercial satellite operators are continuing to develop excessive ambition plans, but other companies have made steady progress in meeting their target of launching. 

In light of recent technical progress and reduced costs together with increased access to funding, there is still a growing interest in the construction and launch of commercial satellite constellations. The drop in 2022, far lower than expected and capital inflows were also at a record high, was not as severe as some industry analysts predicted it would be from the peak of public investment in space reached in 2021, although there had been much concern about that. The excitement about corporate satellite constellations is not confined to one sector, with companies looking into a broad range of applications ranging from homeland security and climate monitoring to improving the quality of life on Earth. We carried out an analysis in 2021 to see if the operators of the constellations were able to translate their ambitious plans for the number of satellites and their launch into reality. Results showed that, in more than half of the announced constellations, operators had yet to put an asset into orbit. In order to determine whether interest in satellite constellations is still high and if operators are achieving their objectives more successfully, we performed an update of the analysis at the beginning of 2023. Three findings stand out:

  • There is still a growing interest in this sector. More than 300 declared satellite constellations, up from about 250 at the beginning of 2019, have now been announced.
  • Reality has yet to catch up with expectations. In the case of confirmed constellations, about 45 % have no satellite launches to date and 10 % are still experiencing a slow growth rate that is defined as not having launched in more than one year.
  • There's been a growing momentum in this direction. Although many operators have seen little growth in recent years, nearly 30 % of constellations have launched satellites in the past year, compared to only about 15 % at the beginning of 2021.

Continued interest in commercial satellite constellations is encouraging, but often results in plans that go beyond what operators are capable of reasonably doing on the basis of timetable developments, customer demand and available capital. However, given that capital is much harder to find than it was just a few years ago, certain firms have emerged as leaders. These undertakings are developing effective, detailed plans based on data which describe how to improve customer demand for satellite services through the use of their robust preparation and may help them raise the necessary capital in order to achieve their constellation objectives. Their continuous progress with the launch of satellites, which gives proof of their commitment and capabilities, will encourage more investments after a funding round. We expect that by the end of 2023 existing constellations like mega constellations in space synchronous orbits enabling communications will be continuing to evolve and a few new ones will arise. At the same time, more constellations will be cut down either by formal notification or solely as a result of lack of progress. In terms of the factors that make successful constellations different from others, industry entrepreneurs who follow these developments may be able to gain insight.


Current State of Space Exploration 

Commercial communications satellites are manufactured and sold for commercial, academic, nongovernmental, or civilian purposes, and not primarily for military purposes, through a commercial agreement. In order to image the planet, remotely sensed satellites search different parts of the spectrum, for example light, infrared and radio frequencies. The largest share of the commercial space market is held by satellite services, which include communications, broadband internet, direct to home television, radio and imaging services. Satellite services also require ground equipment and receivers to be used. Remote sensing satellites scan the entire spectrum from light to infrared and radio frequency in order to view the Earth. A satellite constellation (or swarm) is a network of identical or similar-type artificial units with the same purpose and shared control. These groups are communicating worldwide through the location of ground stations, sometimes with each other. They're part of a system and their purpose is to complement one another. A group of artificial satellites, which are integrated into one system, constitute a satellite constellation. A constellation can provide permanent global or near world coverage, as compared to single satellites, so that at least one satellite is visible all over Earth at any given time.

There are three types of Satellite Constellations:

  • GEO Satellite Constellations- GEO stands for geostationary or equatorial orbit, which is currently home to hundreds of satellites. The name of geostationary swarms arises from Earth Rotation mode, where they align themselves with the movement of our planet and hover at a fixed point all the time. A typical orbit of Earth's weather satellite constellations is GEO. Others are broadcasting TV, providing telecommunication services at low speed.
  • LEO Satellite Constellations- At altitudes of 500 to 1,200 km, the LEO swarms are the densest population in space. Governments, as well as commercial and not for profit organizations, use the resulting data to a large extent.
  • MEO Satellite Constellations- MEO's an acronym for swarms of medium Earth or mid Earth that operate at altitudes ranging from 5 to 20 000 kilometers, where they are usually used as navigational aids.

Large constellations of satellites: mitigation of environmental impacts & other effects 

Satellites have served as a GPS, communications and remote sensing instrument over the past decades. As thousands more satellites have been launched to offer Internet access, the satellite fleet has increased in recent times. However, such a rise could be disruptive. In addition, it could cause further space debris that may destroy the existing satellites in service to commerce or domestic security. To reduce potential impacts, we've looked at the technologies and tools available. We've also been looking at mitigation problems, such as unclear rules and lack of technology. We have drawn up policy options to help policymakers reach a range of objectives in order to address these challenges.

What RNPL Found?

As of spring 2022, there were almost 5 500 active satellites in orbit, and one estimate estimates that up to 57 000 will be launched by 2030. The primary drivers of growth are the massive constellation of satellites orbiting Earth's lower orbit. Satellites are a major source of service, but the trend could also have impacts on the environment and others.


RNPL assessed technologies and approaches to evaluate and mitigate the following potential effects:

  • The orbital debris is increasing- Satellites may be damaged or destroyed by debris in space, affecting commercial operations, science information and the country's security.
  • Emissions from the top of the atmosphere- Particles and gases which can influence air temperatures and deplete the ozone layer will be generated by rocket launches and satellite reentries. The effects could be reduced by limiting the use of rocket engines, which are capable of producing certain harmful emissions.
  • Disruption of astronomy- Satellites are capable of absorbing sunlight and transmitting signals to interfere with the observation of natural phenomena. In November 2021, many constellation operators still do not meet their original objectives, despite steadily increasing and significant rise in the number of constellations declared for sale over recent years.

Conclusion:

Over the past few years, commercial space ventures have become more and more attractive as investment has increased ten times faster than it did a decade ago. Although there are the most significant headlines generated by space tourism and launching, a similar trend is emerging with regard to plans for global growth in satellite constellations organized by operators worldwide. More than 250 new constellations are scheduled to be launched by satellite operators across the world over the next few years, with about 150 of them being revealed in recent years. Analysis reveals that a growing number of operators are beginning to pursue grandiose timetables for the launch and total constellation count only to discover it is hindered by available funding and market demand. This is true in spite of the capital influx that has been experienced by the commercial space industry for several years. There is still no asset in orbit for over half of the announced constellations. In the past year, less than 5 percent were able to reach their target of having a satellite count while only 12 % have added new constellations. When constellations are stagnant, they tend to do so after achieving less than 20 % and, in many cases, less than 10 % of their proposed size by the number of satellites. Furthermore, many commercial satellite operators are not able to meet the original time frame due to falling short of their required constellation size.  

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swara-keni
Swara Keni

Head- Global Business Development

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