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Starlink’s Ukraine support puts spotlight on new space race

As the U.S. and its allies provide Ukraine with aid, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government is also getting assistance from a less likely source: Elon Musk. Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin started the war and Ukraine publicly pleaded for help, Musk’s SpaceX enabled its Starlink satellite broadband service in Ukraine and began shipping additional dishes. Those dishes are especially valuable now that Russia’s military is targeting Ukrainian infrastructure. “Received the second shipment of Starlink stations!” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, tweeted on March 9. “@elonmusk keeps his word!”

The dishes Musk has provided to Ukraine and to Tonga following its January tsunami have cast a spotlight on low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, a new generation of spacecraft that can circle the globe in just 90 minutes and connect users to the internet. They’re small and inexpensive: A Starlink satellite weighs 260 kilograms (573 pounds) and costs from $250,000 to $500,000, while an Inmarsat Group Holdings Ltd. geostationary satellite can clock in at 4 metric tons and sell for $130 million.

The satellite networks will be able to provide broadband access to tens of millions of people in places such as rural India that otherwise lack access to more traditional mobile and fixed-line networks. “There is a large opportunity to bridge the digital divide in remote areas where the cost of terrestrial communication is high, and hence both voice and broadband communication have not been set up,” says Anil Bhatt, director general of the Indian Space Association.

On March 9, Musk boasted that SpaceX had sent 48 more satellites into orbit, adding to its over 2,000 already circling the Earth. But Musk has rivals with their own LEO satellite ambitions. They include fellow space billionaire Jeff Bezos. Amazon.com Inc.’s Kuiper Systems wants to launch more than 7,000 satellites. On March 5 a Chinese rocket launched six LEO satellites for Beijing-based GalaxySpace, which plans a constellation with as many as 1,000. The European Union in February announced a plan for a constellation that would cost about €6 billion ($6.6 billion). And Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Global, along with the British government, is an investor in OneWeb Ltd., which plans to begin operating its LEO constellation of 648 satellites this year. It intended to launch its latest group of satellites on March 5 aboard a Russian rocket, but canceled after the Kremlin’s space agency demanded that the U.K. sell its stake. OneWeb is looking for alternative services for six future launches.

Unlike more established operators, which have a relatively small number of satellites in fixed locations about 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) above sea level, companies launching LEO satellites place them at heights of 550 to 1,200 km. That makes it easier for the satellites to provide speedy services than those higher in space, says Marco Caceres, an analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market analysis firm. “They’re going to make a lot of these traditional systems dinosaurs overnight,” he says, adding that Starlink alone is likely to have 4,500 satellites in operation by the middle of the decade. “They’re moving at lightning speed.”

In some cases, maybe too fast. SpaceX began signing up customers in India in 2021 even though it didn’t have a license to offer Starlink service there. India’s government in January demanded the company return money from would-be customers. As SpaceX works out its entry strategy for India, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.—the telecommunications operator controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person—in February formed a joint venture with Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES SA to provide internet access via satellites in geostationary and medium-Earth orbits.

While the new satellite companies boast of their ability to reach underserved communities, many will struggle to make their equipment affordable for some target markets, says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Matthew Bloxham. According to BI, a standard Starlink plan costs $499 for the hardware, plus a monthly fee of $99. But there are other reasons governments are likely to provide financial support for internet via satellite, Bloxham says: “It provides resilience in case of a cyberattack that takes out the regular internet that we know today.”

Still, critics say Musk and others aren’t considering the risks of having too many satellites in a relatively narrow band above Earth. “What’s going on now is there’s a race to put up as many as possible for the rights that are implied by having those satellites, even if it’s not economically justified, or safe, or sustainable,” says Mark Dankberg, chairman of Viasat Inc., a California-based satellite operator of geostationary satellites, which in November agreed to buy rival Inmarsat for $4 billion. As operators attempted to bulk up in response to the challenge from newcomers, M&A deal volume for the satellite industry in 2021 reached its highest level since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, with companies signing 60 deals worth $18 billion.

China in December said two of Starlink’s satellites came dangerously close to its space station. The U.S. said there had been no “significant probability” of a Starlink collision with the Chinese station, but some experts worry that the situation was a sign of what’s to come. International agreements governing space date to the 1960s and ’70s, when billionaires didn’t have their own space programs. “We have so many of these new actors coming on board, and we don’t have sufficiently strong international law,” says Maria Pozza, a director at Gravity Lawyers in Christchurch, New Zealand, who advises clients on space law and regulation. “We’ve got a little bit of a mess.” Bloomberg

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