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Satellite mega-constellations

Julia Dufossé

Satellite mega-constellations

  • Why it matters

    These systems can blanket the globe with high-speed internet—or turn Earth’s orbit into a junk-ridden minefield.
  • Key players

    SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, Telesat
  • Availability

    Now

We can now affordably build, launch, and operate tens of thousands of satellites in orbit at once.

Satellites that can beam a broadband connection to internet terminals. As long as these terminals have a clear view of the sky, they can deliver internet to any nearby devices. SpaceX alone wants to send more than 4.5 times more satellites into orbit this decade than humans have ever launched since Sputnik.

These mega-constellations are feasible because we have learned how to build smaller satellites and launch them more cheaply. During the space shuttle era, launching a satellite into space cost roughly $24,800 per pound. A small communications satellite that weighed four tons cost nearly $200 million to fly up.

Today a SpaceX Starlink satellite weighs about 500 pounds (227 kilograms). Reusable architecture and cheaper manufacturing mean we can strap dozens of them onto rockets to greatly lower the cost; a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch today costs about $1,240 per pound.

The first 120 Starlink satellites went up last year, and the company planned to launch batches of 60 every two weeks starting in January 2020. OneWeb will launch over 30 satellites later this year. We could soon see thousands of satellites working in tandem to supply internet access for even the poorest and most remote populations on the planet.

But that’s only if things work out. Some researchers are livid because they fear these objects will disrupt astronomy research. Worse is the prospect of a collision that could cascade into a catastrophe of millions of pieces of space debris, making satellite services and future space exploration next to impossible. Starlink’s near-miss with an ESA weather satellite in September was a jolting reminder that the world is woefully unprepared to manage this much orbital traffic. What happens with these mega-constellations this decade will define the future of orbital space.