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

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.

StarlinkRedmond, Wash.
7,518VGlobal broadbandSpaceX project
StarlinkRedmond, Wash..4,425Ka, KuGlobal broadbandTwo test satellites launched in 2018; additional launches planned in 2019
AmazonSeattle, Wash.3,236KaGlobal broadbandKuiper constellation
BoeingSeattle, Wash.2,956VGlobal broadband
OneWebArlington, Va.600KuGlobal broadbandSix satellite launched in February 2019
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)Beijing, China320L, KaHongyan global broadbandFirst satellite launched in December 2018; scheduled for completion in 2022
Russian Space Systems Company
Moscow, Russia288?High-speed communications
Planned completion in 2025
Sky and Space GlobalLondon, England200L, SNarrow band communications
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC)Beijing, China156KaHongyun global broadbandFirst satellite launched in December 2018; planned completion in 2025
TelesatOttawa, Ont.117KaWide band and narrow band communications servicesFirst satellite launched in January 2018
LeoSat EnterprisesPompano Beach, Fla.108KaBroadband services
IridiumMcLean, Va.75LVoice and data communications
Completed Iridum-NEXT constellation in 2018
BoeingSeattle, Wash.60KaVery high speed connectivity for end-user earth stations
Washington, DC42KaBroadband services20 O3b satellites launched
GlobalstarCovington, La.24SSatellite phone and low-speed dataConstellation completed in 2013
ViaSat Carlsbad, Calif.24Ka, VBroadband services
Karousel LLCAlexandria, Va.12KaCommunications

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.