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Amazon Constellation Sends Number of Planned Communications Satellites Soaring Above 20,000

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 5, 2019
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F6 satellite (Credit: OneWeb)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has jumped into a crowded field of companies seeking to provide high-speed broadband, data and other communications services to the entire globe.

Amazon’s Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites brings the total number of spacecraft in the 16 announced systems to 20,241 spacecraft. The competition includes SpaceX, Boeing, Telesat, SES and government-backed companies in China and Russia.

Instead of operating in geosynchronous orbits of 35,786 km (22,236 mi), the satellites will be placed in low and medium Earth orbits. By operating at lower altitudes, the satellites will be able to reduce the latency (delay) in signal transmissions, which is essential for fast broadband services.

Bezos faces tough competition from fellow billionaire Elon Musk. The SpaceX CEO’s Starlink company has received approvals from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a pair of constellations consisting of eye-popping 11,943 satellites.

In February 2018, Starlink launched two Starlink demonstration satellites named Tintin A and Tintin B. The launch of the first production satellites in a constellation totaling 4,425 spacecraft that will operate in the Ka and Ku bands is planned for later this year.

SpaceX’s second constellation of 7,514 satellites would operate in the V band.

Starlink Redmond, Wash.
7,518 V Global broadband SpaceX project
Starlink Redmond, Wash.. 4,425 Ka, Ku Global broadband Two test satellites launched in 2018; additional launches planned in 2019
Amazon Seattle, Wash. 3,236 Ka Global broadband Kuiper constellation
Boeing Seattle, Wash. 2,956 V Global broadband
OneWeb Arlington, Va. 600 Ku Global broadband Six satellite launched in February 2019
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) Beijing, China 320 L, Ka Hongyan global broadband First satellite launched in December 2018; scheduled for completion in 2022
Russian Space Systems Company
Moscow, Russia 288 ? High-speed communications
Planned completion in 2025
Sky and Space Global London, England 200 L, S Narrow band communications
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) Beijing, China 156 Ka Hongyun global broadband First satellite launched in December 2018; planned completion in 2025
Telesat Ottawa, Ont. 117 Ka Wide band and narrow band communications services First satellite launched in January 2018
LeoSat Enterprises Pompano Beach, Fla. 108 Ka Broadband services
Iridium McLean, Va. 75 L Voice and data communications
Completed Iridum-NEXT constellation in 2018
Boeing Seattle, Wash. 60 Ka Very high speed connectivity for end-user earth stations
Washington, DC 42 Ka Broadband services 20 O3b satellites launched
Globalstar Covington, La. 24 S Satellite phone and low-speed data Constellation completed in 2013
ViaSat Carlsbad, Calif. 24 Ka, V Broadband services
Karousel LLC Alexandria, Va. 12 Ka Communications

Greg Wyler’s OneWeb launched the first six spacecraft in a planned 600-satellite constellation in February. The company  subsequently raised an additional $1.25 billion in new capital, bringing the total funds raised to $3.4 billion.

In February 2017, Wyler has said OneWeb was considering adding almost 2,000 additional satellites to its constellation.

Boeing has plans for a constellation of 2,956 communications satellites to provide global Internet services. In June 2018, a Boeing executive said work on the project had stalled.

LeoSat Data Network Constellation (Credit: LeoSat)

LeoSat Enterprises of Florida is developing a constellation of up to 108 satellites. Last September, the company announced it had secured pre-launch agreements totaling more than $1 billion. The first launch is scheduled for 2020.

Facebook has also confirmed that it is working on a high-speed communications satellite system under a subsidiary named PointView Tech. The company has not released any information about the planned size of the constellation.

U.S. companies face competition from abroad. On Thursday, Luxembourg-based SES completed the first phase of its medium Earth orbit (MEO) broadband constellation as a Soyuz rocket orbited four O3b satellites. Twenty spacecraft are now in orbit; the FCC has given SES approval to operate 42 satellites.

Credit: Telesat

Toronto-based Telesat has received FAA approval to launch 117 satellites to provide broadband services beginning in 2021. The company has said the system has been designed to scale up to as many as 512 satellites.

In January 2018, Telesat’s launched a Phase 1 LEO demonstration satellite aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket. The spacecraft, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., began live demonstrations last May.

Telesat has signed agreements for launch services with Bezos’ Blue Origin and Relativity, a start-up that is 3D printing its rockets.

A pair of Chinese companies are also developing satellite constellations. On Dec. 29, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) launched the first spacecraft in its 320-satellite Hongyan system in December 2018. CASC expects to complete the network in 2022.

A week earlier, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) launched the first satellite in its similarly named Hongyun satellite constellation. CASIC expects to have the planned 156-satellite broadband system completed by 2025.

Russian Space Systems Company has thrown its hat into the ring with plans for a constellation of 288 satellites. The company is part of the state-run Roscosmos Corporation, which runs Russia’s space program.

In addition to active satellites, a large number of items of debris that originated from collisions, decommissioned satellites or the spent upper stages of launch vehicles are currently in Earth orbit. (Credit: ESA)

The large number of satellite has raised concerns about spacecraft colliding with each other and adding to the growing problem of space debris. Further, companies could go bankrupt if the demand is not there, leaving large number of spacecraft in orbit without being under active control.

The FCC recently published draft rules on how to mitigate the debris problem.

16 responses to “Amazon Constellation Sends Number of Planned Communications Satellites Soaring Above 20,000”

  1. ThomasLMatula says:

    Looks like the number of UFO reports is going to shoot up ?

  2. Saturn1300 says:

    More space debris to miss on the way up. They should use towers. Rent space on existing towers. It sounds like EchoStar is doing that. The antenna farm in my area is 20mi or so. 5-10 watt transmitter should reach it for upload. CB can nearly reach. The tower is 1600′ tall.

    • Robert G. Oler says:

      I have four towers from the old LF/MF ranges that hold my 160 meter antenna up and and old ATT relay tower that the pipeline patrol company owns…for land mobile 🙂

  3. savuporo says:

    Constellations: Electric boogaloo.

    Somewhere Iridium-Motorola , Globalstar, Orbcomm and other 90ies constellation boom old farts are scratching their heads.

  4. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Where is Globalstar in that table?

    • Douglas Messier says:

      Added. Thanks.

      • Pete Zaitcev says:

        Thanks a lot! That’s a very interesting table.

        BTW, I don’t know if that is in scope for your work, but Russians are obstinate about maintaining Gonets. It’s a very narrow band store-and-forward constellation from the 1980s, which is completely outclassed by any and all modern systems. But they use to collect reports from their spies, so it continues to get funding and uses communication frequencies. According to Wikipedia, currently they have 13 satellites.

        I think the Russian thing you included is not the legacy Gonets, but the new “Sphera” project. It is a gigantic boondoggle with a very odd strategic direction of combining remote sensing and communications in the same constellation. Well, gigantic for Russia – they plan 640 satellites.

        Regarding the identification, RSS Reshetnev is going to be a contractor, because it’s the only one who has the capacity to make satellites. But they aren’t going to be the prime contractor or the lead managing organization. The number of 288 satellites belongs to the earlier system “Efir”, which is replaced by “Sfera” in current plans. Going to morph a lot more, I’m sure.

  5. Kirk says:

    The first SpaceX dedicated Starlink launch is now on their manifest for NET mid-May.

  6. Douglas Messier says:

    For anyone who’s interested, I’ve found more than 1,400 satellites in other constellations — remote sensing, Internet of Things, maritime vessel monitoring and commercial weather. That puts the number above 21,600 satellites. Story to come.

    • Saturn1300 says:

      Wow! Crazy!

    • Jeff Smith says:

      Doug, I’ve been keeping a less complete list of the constellations, so I’m interested to see what you come up with.

      A question about your approach, do you want to keep it only focused on COMMUNICATIONS constellations, or do you want to expand it to navigation ones too (GPS/Beidou/GLONASS/Galileo/etc)? The reason I ask, is because I use the info as a “must be refreshed X often” list to understand what the work load for launchers is really like.

      Clearly reusable launcher economics don’t work unless you have a constant stream of satellites to put up.

    • Douglas Messier says:

      Make that more than 1,700 now. So we’re up over 21,900.

  7. Robert G. Oler says:

    most will not happen

    • duheagle says:

      Boeing and Russia won’t happen. Starlink and OneWeb are already happening. Amazon and Telesat look pretty solid too. Of the notional birds on Doug’s list, I think maybe 10%, at most, wind up being no-shows. I suspect those will be more than offset by additional projects we haven’t even heard of yet that will bow over the coming few years – especially when DoD/Space Force get rolling.

  8. ThomasLMatula says:

    If you assume that you have an average orbit of around 750 km and assume about 22,000 satellites and then consider the surface area of a sphere with a radius of 7100 km (Earth radius plus oribital height) you end up with roughly one satellite per 28,000 sq km, or one satellite for the land area of Massachusetts. Yes, space is big…

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