Fun with Figures: Move Over Starlink, Here Comes China’s Satellite Mega-Constellation

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Chinese government recently formed a company to develop a satellite mega-constellation that would exceed SpaceX’s rival Starlink communications network in size, according to media reports.

The newly created China Satellite Network Group Co. will oversee the development of a communications satellite constellation that will include 12,992 satellites. China has filed for spectrum allocation for the constellation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The Chinese constellation would be the largest in the world with 1,049 more satellites than the 11,943 Starlink satellites approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Together, the Chinese and Starlink satellites would place 24,935 satellites into Earth orbit.

SpaceX has launched more than 1,700 Starlink satellites so far. In October 2019, the FCC submitted filings to the ITU on behalf of SpaceX for spectrum allocation for 30,000 additional satellites. That would bring the total number of Starlink satellites to just under 42,000. The ITU has not acted on the application.

SELECTED SATELLITE CONSTELLATIONS

ConstellationCompanyStatusPurpose & BandsNo. of Satellites
StarlinkSpaceX1,737 launched, 1,635 activeBroadband Internet — Ka, Ku, V11,943
Project KuiperAmazon9 launches
awarded to ULA
Broadband Internet — Ka band3,236
OneWebOneWeb217 launchedBroadband Internet — Ka, Ku, V648
LightspeedTelesatApprovedBroadband Internet,  Ka-band298
Subtotal16,125
StarlinkSpaceXProposedBroadband Internet — Ka, Ku, V30,000
GuowangChina Satellite Network GroupProposedBroadband Internet, Multiple bands12,992
OneWebOneWebProposedBroadband Internet — Ka, Ku, V6,372
Total65,489

There are a number of other satellite constellations that have been approved or are in development. Amazon’s Project Kuiper will include 3,236 satellites that will provide high-speed communications around the globe. OneWeb has now launched one-third of its initial constellation of 648 satellites. The company has proposed adding 6,372 satellites to the constellation.

The rapid deployment of mega constellations has shifted the satellite communications industry from large satellites in geosynchronous orbit to fleets of smaller spacecraft in low and medium Earth orbit. Most of SpaceX’s recent launches have focused on deploying the Starlink satellites.

This GIF is part of a longer animation showing different types of space debris objects and different debris sizes in orbit around Earth. For debris objects bigger than 10 cm the data comes from the US Space Surveillance Catalogue. The information about debris objects smaller than 10 cm is based on a statistical model from ESA. (Credit: ESA)

The rapid increase in the number of satellites has raised concerns about the possibility of collisions adding to the already serious problem of orbital debris. There are fears of a Kessler syndrome — a cascading series of collisions that create enormous clouds of debris that render Earth orbit unusable.

Although satellites are being launched to test technologies to clean up debris already in orbit, there is concern that these efforts are falling behind the growth of satellite constellations.

The European Space Agency recently issued a report that examines the growing debris problem and steps being taken by launch providers and satellite owners to reduce the creation of additional debris.