Constellationizing Space: Chinese Company Seeks Approval to Launch Nearly 13,000 Satellites

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Larry Press reports a Chinese company named GW has filed for spectrum allocation from the International Telecommunication Union for two broadband constellations called GW-A59 and GW-2 that would include 12,992 satellites.

The size of GW’s request indicates to Press that the company would compete globally with broadband constellations being built by SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon. He wrote:

SpaceX, which is off to the fastest end-user start, is focusing initially on the lucrative markets of North America, followed perhaps by Europe. OneWeb would seem to have an advantage in the Asian and African nations where part-owner Bharti [Global] has a presence, as well as the United Kingdom, due to the government’s stake in the company. GW would be in a strong position in the nations where China already has “Digital Silk Road” (DSR) projects….

The DSR is part of China’s ambitions Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure projects in around 70 nations. In late 2016 they added space infrastructure — the Belt & Road spatial Information Corridor. While they are currently concentrated in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, I’ve speculated that the DSR may extend to Latin America.

Over half the people in the world live in or near China and India. Many of those have no connectivity, and some are paying very high rates for geosynchronous satellite service. If the LEO satellite business works out, there is room for GW, OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and others.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved SpaceX’s plan to launch just under 12,000 satellites for its Starlink constellation. Elon Musk’s company has already launched 715 satellites on Falcon 9 boosters.

The commission also approved OneWeb for 2,000 satellites and Amazon for 3,236 spacecraft for the Kuiper constellation. OneWeb has launched 74 spacecraft thus far.

SpaceX has an application to FCC to add 30,000 satellites to its constellation, raising the number to 42,000. OneWeb has also applied to increase its constellation size to 48,000 spacecraft.

Press also points to two other Chinese constellations designed largely for domestic use. The Hongyun constellation would include 864 satellites to provide service to that country’s remote regions. The Hongyan constellation of 320 spacecraft would focus on providing communications services for maritime, aviation and other sectors.

One thing is clear: there will be a lot of satellites in orbit. The rush to constellationize space comes at a time when there are growing concerns about space debris. There are no international standards on how to clean up the debris that is already there or avoid creating more of it.

Some fear that the density of objects in Earth orbit could create a cascading series of collisions known as the Kessler syndrome that would generate ever greater amounts of debris. Such a series of event could render parts of Earth orbit unusable and disrupt global communications.