Why are we launching so many satellites?
Modern technologies keep developing and becoming more and more advanced. The same goes for space tech. Innovations have allowed for making spacecraft much smaller, making their assembly and launch easier, faster, and less expensive. At the same time, this miniaturized spacecraft is more than capable of performing required tasks, especially when it comes to ensuring sustainability across businesses. However, to cover the whole Earth and with high frequency, it’s usually more effective to launch a constellation of several satellites that will perform the same functions and work for the same goal.
The very idea of a satellite constellation emerged about two decades ago.
With worldwide communication links competing with ground cellular networks, having, however, little to no success mainly due to high service costs. Certainly, all those years ago, the business model couldn’t withstand the reality of a small market size and high initial and maintenance costs. Luckily, everything has changed with the advancement in satellite tech.
Now, different companies launch their own satellite constellations for a variety of purposes, including even ag monitoring. In fact, apart from crop monitoring, groups of satellites also have unique potential in the field of communication, weather monitoring, security, forestry, and others. Therefore, today we experience a tendency for an increased number of satellite constellations. Let’s get into more detail to find out why.
Why More Constellations
The constantly increasing number of satellites has to do with two key factors: space sector commercialization and consequently the advent of CubeSats. A modern small satellite can be put in a pocket. And it will solve no fewer problems than a large one. Small spacecraft can be useful for farmers by providing data for crop monitoring systems, ecologists, biologists, and even insurance companies. More so, with the help of small satellites, it is possible to equip the whole world with cheap Internet.
The advantages of such small satellites are their cheapness, ease of assembly, and the possibility to launch a swarm of satellites that can perform the same task. If one of them fails, the mission will not stop, which will increase the chances of its positive outcome. Satellites can be used for remote sensing of the Earth. Data from such satellites are updated quickly, allowing for getting an up-to-date picture of changes on the planet.
The core advantage of satellite constellations is their effectiveness in terms of communications and internet access.
Usually, satellites have to orbit the Earth at a very high velocity. Meaning they won’t be able to stay in range to deliver broadband for a long time, for instance. This issue becomes solved by geostationary satellites that go around the Earth just as fast as it rotates around its axis. The only drawback is that such satellites must reside very far away, which means longer transmissions and more power needed. And such a state of things is not an option when fast Internet access becomes needed.
However, a satellite swarm can stay in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). And ensure one or its units is in range of ground-based transmitters and receivers 24/7. That means the constellation can “revisit” the same location on the ground around the clock. Lastly, which is the exact goal of most satellite constellation launches.
The Other Side Of Satellite Boom
Huge constellations of satellites involved in providing Internet access services can fundamentally affect astronomers’ ability to study the night sky. The potential impact of mega-constellations of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites has been estimated to range from minor to extreme. The actual impact on the night sky of the satellite constellations boom on LEO will depend on a number of factors, including the nature and purpose of the observations made; the ability of observers to remove or mask satellite footprints in their databases; and the number, brightness, and altitude of the satellites.
For example, satellite footprints could be a serious issue for the telescopes that are trying to “catch” wide swaths of the sky in the visible and infrared spectrum. As the industry is currently at a starting point in the formation of mega-constellations, there is still time to minimize the possible negative effects of satellite swarms in space by placing them no higher than 600 km above the surface; reducing the brightness of satellites by controlling their position as necessary, by darkening them and/or shading their reflective surfaces; supporting the development of image processing software products that can minimize the impact of satellite footprints on their performance; providing access to information about satellite orbits, so that astronomers can take this data into account and direct their telescopes so that the satellites are not blocking the view.
Why are we launching so many satellites?