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How satellite mega-constellations will change the way we use space

And wherever humans go, they’ll be taking satellite constellations with them to moon and Mars.
February 26, 2020

Sixty-three years after Sputnik first entered orbit, a couple of thousand satellites circle the planet to help us do things like communicate, navigate, and forecast the weather. Soon, though, they will be dwarfed by mega-constellations with great networks of hundreds or even thousands of satellites working in concert.

Starlink, from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, offers the clearest glimpse of what’s to come. The company has already deployed more than 100 satellites for the system, and by the mid-2020s, it plans to assemble a constellation of nearly 12,000 to provide broadband internet access globally. Many other space agencies and for-profit space companies have begun setting up their own networks, too.

  • ☹️ RESILIENCE

    If one satellite fails, others can step in to cover. Substitutions make sure the system keeps going if a single unit breaks. Dying satellites get dragged into a low orbit and burn up on reentry.

  • ? LAUNCH

    A single rocket carries up to 60 satellites at a time. Batched launches mean a whole operation won’t be lost if a rocket fails. More satellites can join the formation later.

  • ? EQUIPMENT

    Cubesats are commonly used; they are shoebox-like and weigh only 4 to 5 kilograms. Planet Labs’s SkySats are the size of a mini-fridge and weigh 100 kg. The company’s entire fleet weighs half as much as one ordinary high-resolution imaging satellite.

“It’s a rather dynamic environment right now, with a lot of people starting to look at space as a means to answer certain business models,” says Roger Hunter, manager of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program. “I call it the democratization of space.”

Constellations offer new levels of versatility. Smaller, cheaper satellitessome just the size of a briefcasecan be arranged in different configurations depending on their goal. Lined up in a string that follows a single orbit, for example, a constellation can repeatedly photograph or surveil the same spot. Starlink, meanwhile, is arranged in a crisscross formation to blanket the planet with internet service.

“I think that as an industry we’re trying to figure out how to increase the level of great space-based services that come down and help people on Earth every day, while doing it in a responsible and sustainable way in the orbital environment,” says Mike Safyan, vice president of launch and global ground systems at Planet Labs, which operates the second-largest constellation in operation.

In the meantime, we can look forward to more and bigger satellite systems, with hundreds if not thousands of members, heading up into orbit. And eventually, wherever humans gowhether it’s to the moon, Mars, or even other starsthey’ll be taking constellations with them.

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer.

 

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Photograph, Seine et Marne on march the 6th 2021 at night. Taurus constellation. On this image we can see the effect of the movements of artificial satellites through the sky. On the left we can see the planet Mars, on the right the famous stars cluster the Pleiades (M45). From the bottom right the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1269, and from the top the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1577
Photograph, Seine et Marne on march the 6th 2021 at night. Taurus constellation. On this image we can see the effect of the movements of artificial satellites through the sky. On the left we can see the planet Mars, on the right the famous stars cluster the Pleiades (M45). From the bottom right the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1269, and from the top the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1577

SpaceX just lost 40 satellites to a geomagnetic storm. There could be worse to come.

Increasing solar activity could play havoc with mega-constellations like Starlink in the coming years.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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