Information Systems

Operators make progress on constellation deployment for secure, low-cost global connectivity

The Communications Systems Technical Committee is working to advance communications systems research and applications.

In August, SpaceX launched the 3,000th Starlink satellite for its low-Earth orbit broadband internet constellation. The company recorded “nearly” 500,000 Starlink users in 32 countries as of June and throughout the year announced the availability of specialized terminals and services for aircraft, ships, large trucks and RVs. 

In April, Amazon announced agreements with Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance for a combined 83 launches of its planned constellation, Project Kuiper. The launches would be conducted over a five-year period to send the majority of the 3,236 Kuiper satellites to LEO.

As of October, OneWeb had launched 70% of its first-generation constellation of 648 satellites. Arianespace rockets launched those satellites from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted OneWeb in March to suspend the remaining six scheduled launches. OneWeb later signed agreements with NewSpace India Limited, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, and resumed launches in October. 

In May, Telesat of Canada announced a reduction in the quantity of satellites proposed for its Lightspeed LEO constellation to 198. It now plans to order 198 buses from supplier Thales Alenia Space instead of 298 and to optimize the constellation design to result in higher overall efficiency.

In September, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched Texas-based AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 experimental satellite to demonstrate direct satellite communications to off-the-shelf mobile devices via a 693-square-foot phased array active antenna. The company is not alone in this goal: Also in September, Lynk announced approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to launch and operate a satellite-to-cellular mobile service. In August, SpaceX announced it would create a similar service using the Generation 2 Starlink satellites in partnership with T-Mobile. 

The U.S. Space Development Agency continued to develop its constellation of satellites offering data transport, tracking and battlefield management. The agency awarded numerous contracts throughout the year, including in February to Colorado-based York Space Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the Tranche 1 spacecraft and in May to General Dynamics Mission Systems for the ground and control segment. 

All the activity in LEO does not mean the geostationary market has been forgotten. As of October, Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia have secured a combined 10 orders for their OneSat and Space Inspire satellites. In July, SES completed on-orbit testing of its high throughput satellite SES-17. In September, Viasat’s first ViaSat-3 satellite completed integration, utilizing an in-house payload and a Boeing Satellite Systems bus. This new class of GEO satellites would offer aggregate capacities of over 1 terabit per second.

The GEO market is also seeing strong investment in next-generation military communications satellites. The U.S. Space Force’s fiscal 2023 request released in March requests $5 billion through 2027 for the Evolved Strategic Satcom satellites that would replace the existing Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation. The United Kingdom’s inaugural Defense Space Strategy published in February listed a 5 billion pound ($5.85 billion) investment in the Skynet satellites and other communications satellites over the next decade. 

This year was also a year of consolidation. In June, Viasat shareholders approved a plan to purchase U.K. operator Inmarsat. In July, Eutelsat and OneWeb announced plans to merge. Intelsat and SES are reportedly discussing a merger but as of October had not confirmed reports.  

Contributor: Tom Butash

Operators make progress on constellation deployment for secure, low-cost global connectivity