By Candace Do '24
In mid-2019, strange foreign objects began showing up in astronomical observations. Seen as bright points of light, they showed up in straight lines shooting across the night sky. These were not UFOs; they were actually SpaceX’s new Starlink project. Starlink, which aims to bring the internet to remote, rural places via low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, is just one example of the space industry’s newest technology: satellite constellations.
In brief, a satellite constellation is a collection of satellites, ranging from just a few to hundreds, with a common mission. SpaceX’s Starlink is one of the most-well known satellite constellations, but satellite constellations can also have scientific goals, such as creating one large telescope, or even missions that serve the space industry as a whole, like space debris collectors. To learn more about what satellite constellations are, check out these articles from Astronomy.com and the International Astronomical Union.
As with any new innovation in the space industry, satellite constellations come with both global benefits and global risks. The size and agility of small satellites means that companies can quickly launch and deploy them as well as expand and revise the mission by adding more satellites.
However, satellite constellations such as Starlink have also increased the clutter in LEO. Over the past five decades, dozens of countries have launched thousands of satellites, many of which are simply left in space after their missions end. The result is a sea of space debris, all travelling at thousands of miles per hour. This debris can be very dangerous for current missions, and there have been cases where spacecraft have been damaged or destroyed by space debris.
Satellite constellations such as Starlink have also hampered astronomical
observations, since they are much, much brighter than the distant astronomical objects that scientists are trying to study. As more and more satellites are launched, they have the potential to disrupt expensive observing sessions and ruin astronomical data, making it much more difficult and inefficient for scientists to complete their studies.
Nevertheless, companies both big and small are choosing to invest in satellite constellations. Many “New Space” startups are focusing on using their satellite constellations to generate and move large amounts of data. These startups include LeoLabs, whose satellite constellation is providing high-resolution images and data of objects in low-earth orbit, and Mynaric, which uses its satellite constellation to establish laser communications for other space companies. Spire has more than a hundred nanosatellites that connect with their ground stations to provide fast satellite-generated data, and Analytical Space is another company looking to provide data to solve world problems such as food security, climate change, and disaster response. The opportunities to quickly harvest data from orbit and sell it to ground-based companies are growing, and these New Space startups are leveraging the capabilities of satellite constellations to fill this new niche in the space industry.
Larger, more established companies have also become interested in using satellite constellations to achieve their goals. Amazon is also diving into the satellite space with Project Kuiper, which, like Starlink, aims to provide broadband access to large parts of the globe. Even the US government is planning on using low-earth orbit satellite constellations for defense purposes, such as tracking cruising missiles or helping with navigation. Several large defense companies, such as L3 Harris and Lockheed Martin, have been hired to help with this effort.
Ultimately, the march towards the proliferation of satellite constellations seems unstoppable. As of September 2021, there were almost 8,000 satellites orbiting earth, but SpaceX plans to launch more than 40,000 satellites over the next few decades. As Earth orbit becomes more and more crowded, it is up to companies and international space policy to determine if the final frontier will still be a resource for all and can remain pristine enough for science and research.