The space race is quickening. New constellations of satellites in near Earth orbit are about to revolutionize broadband connectivity in Britain and beyond. But who will take the glittering prizes – SpaceX, OneWeb, Blue Origin, or another contender? Victor Hill inquires.
SpaceX and the satellite revolution
For years the UK has suffered from mobile telephony and internet lacunae, especially in rural areas, with resulting damage to economic growth. But lucky Prime Minister Johnson may actually be able to deliver on one of his 2019 election promises thanks to the extraordinary satellite revolution which has taken place (coincidence?) during the coronavirus pandemic. For years, the economics of broadband connectivity favoured people living in large conurbations, while those who spend most of their time out in the sticks (like me) suffered from weak signals and frequent interruptions. That is about to change.
Tens of thousands of new mini satellites are going into space this year which will be able to provide economically viable broadband internet coverage to the most remote regions of the planet (even Norfolk). These constellations in low earth orbit (LEO) are nimbler and more functional than their large geo-stationary analogues which are positioned further out in space. LEO satellites orbit at about 350 miles (550 kilometres) above our heads; while the old generation of car-sized satellites reside about 20,000 miles away. That means that their signals reach our mobile phones fractionally, though in computational terms significantly, quicker.
SpaceX’s Starlink Network has launched nearly 1,400 of these football-sized gizmos thus far and is already offering its own broadband channel to be formally launched in the UK later this year. In late April, SpaceX won approval from the US Federal authorities to launch a further 2,814 LEO satellites. These will mostly blast off from Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast and the re-usable rockets will be recovered from the Atlantic. Starlink’s ultimate goal is to have 12,000 mini satellites in orbit.
Last week we learnt that Starlink has a waiting list of over 500,000 customers for its services – or so Mr Musk assured us. The service will cost £89 a month in the UK and the outlay for a signal receiving dish will be £439. Since January, users in the UK have been able to sign up on a trial basis. Some early adopters have reported connection speeds of 150 megabits per second, though these speeds are likely to fall somewhat as more users sign up.
When SpaceX goes public (possibly as early as next year – we don’t know) it will have to be evaluated as an astronaut launch company (mostly thanks to paymaster NASA) as well as a satellite company and an internet service provider with global reach. However, as the analysts cut and splice the numbers, I’m convinced the valuation will be stellar – if not Tesla-esque. That will propel Mr Musk’s net worth well beyond that of his rival for the number one slot, Mr Bezos.
SpaceX is also planning a mission which will orbit the Moon, possibly as soon as 2023. This is the DearMoon projectbacked by the Japanese fashion billionaire Yusaka Maezawa who has bought all the available seats on the spacecraft and is allocating them to a chosen few exceptionally gifted people.
On 03 May the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience craft landed safely at night in the Gulf of Mexico carrying four astronauts who had spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS). Resilience is due to be refurbished before being sent back into space for the Inspiration4 mission scheduled for September. This will be the first all-civilian space flight.
Thanks to SpaceX, NASA has now freed itself from dependence on Russian launch vehicles. NASA will soon award a contract to a space transport provider to ferry astronauts to the Moon. SpaceX already has the $2.9 billion contract to build the lunar landing vehicle. Clearly, SpaceX will be a strong candidate, though both Boeing and Blue Arrow will be contenders.
Ultimately, Mr Musk hopes that Starlink will be a cash cow that will fund the real prize of manned missions to Mars. What the revenue model might be for Martian exploration projects is something I would like to consider soon.
OneWeb, which is now UK PLC’s bridgehead into space (ultimately funded by the long-suffering British taxpayer) aims to have about 648 of these devices in orbit by the end of this year, mostly launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Eastern Siberia. That will require 8-10 new launches. It already has 182 mini satellites which orbit about 1,200 kilometres above the Earth.
Its business-focussed network offer will become available next month and will serve users in the UK, northern Europe and Canada. Its zone of coverage reportedly will be from the North Pole to Cornwall. OneWeb will not sell internet connection services directly to consumers but rather to telecoms companies such as BT (LON:BT.A) which, in turn will provide satellite broadband connections to final users – especially in rural areas where fibre optic cable connections are not economically viable.
OneWeb is also exploring, probably under pressure from its major shareholder, HMG, how to configure a new generation GPS infrastructure for the British market. This would liberate Britain from dependence on both the US military and Europe’s Galileo network from which the UK was expelled upon Brexit.
Some commentators doubt that this new generation of mini satellites can integrate the components required to run a comprehensive GPS network. But Satelles, a US rival, and China’s Baidu (HKG:9888) are also considering similar global LEO constellations to run GPS networks. Access to a fully operational GPS network is now seen as being essential to the operation of a modern economy. Without one, your Amazon orders would arrive days late and your Uber car might not turn up at all. One report suggests that if the GPS system went down that could cost the UK £1 billion a day.
At a moment when Franco-British relations are strained over fishing rights and trade, OneWeb announced at the end of April that it was selling a $550 million stake to Eutelsat, the French satellite company. Eutelsat is 20 percent owned by the French state. If this deal goes through then the UK government, the Indian telecoms company Bharti Enterprisesand Eutelsat will each have a 24 percent stake. Other investors including Softbank (TYO:9984) of Japan will have smaller stakes. The UK will retain a golden share that will allow it to veto future investments on national security grounds. OneWeb will still have to raise another $1 billion or so in fresh funding and plans a staff level of 480 people by the end of this year, of which about 340 will be in the UK.
Part of the logic of the tie-up is that OneWeb uses a band of radio spectrum licensed by the French communications regulator, Arcep, to send signals to its satellites. Eutelsat already offers satellite internet connectivity to households in the UK. The deal was welcomed by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
Meanwhile space launches from UK soil might even take place as soon as next year from either of two new spaceports located in Newquay, Cornwall and the Shetland Islands. A space bill is likely to be enacted by the UK parliament to facilitate this later this year. The Newquay spaceport will prospectively launch Virgin Orbit modified Boeing 747 airliners with underwing rockets. Its not yet clear whether OneWeb’s satellite constellations could be completed by launching from British soil.
There was nothing about space in the Queen’s Speech last Tuesday (11 May). However, there were signs this week that the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) will go ahead with £800 million of funding over four years. This was the brainchild of Mr Cummings, the former Downing Street advisor, who wanted Britain to have its own version of the USA’s DARPA which is credited with facilitating the internet and GPS networks in the 1990s. DARPA still sits inside the US Department for Defense. The UK’s role in space is sure to be high on ARIA’s agenda – the danger is, however, that it becomes just another limb of state bureaucracy.
Why have the economics of satellite delivery changed so much and so quickly? As I have been reporting on these pages over the last year or more, the advent of re-usable rockets makes launch costs much more affordable. (Imagine how expensive air travel would be if every airliner were ritually incinerated after each flight). Second, a smaller payload requires less costly launch vehicles. Mini satellites are small because these days we can pack a huge amount of functional technology into a tiny space. Just consider that your iPhone would have been the size of an aircraft hangar 50 years ago. Third, the sheer volume of new launches provides economies of scale. Fourth, the boffins who are rolling out 5G have made radio signals much more stable through advanced software. That has reduced the cost of producing satellites.
Demand for high-speed broadband internet is increasing both nationally and internationally. As we know, since the pandemic kicked off in Q1 last year, huge numbers of professional people are working from home and are entirely reliant on a decent broadband connection for which they are prepared to pay good money.
These LEO mini satellites probably won’t last as long as the previous generation of satellites. Some will spiral back to Mother Earth and some will crash into space debris. To adjust their trajectories fuel is required to power thrusters which is limited on these small objects. OneWeb has claimed that Starlink’s satellites exhibit a troubling failure rate.
Some specialists have even proposed that, ultimately, it will become economic to manufacture made-to-order satellites in space, presumably in some kind of space station. The UK government-funded Satellite Catapult is soliciting ideas on this theme.
On 30 March there was a near-miss when one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites came within 50 metres of a newly launched OneWeb satellite. OneWeb was given a red alert by the US Space Force. Reportedly, OneWeb’s control team sent their SpaceX counterparts an email and were at length told by the SpaceX people not to worry. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are equipped with AI-enabled automated avoidance systems. These were used in 2019 when a Starlink satellite came close to a European Space agency climate observation satellite. But SpaceX has not shared with other space users how its avoidance system works.
Just days before the 30 March near-miss, SpaceX signed a memorandum with NASA to provide more information about the positioning of the Starlink constellation. When two objects collide in space, they create a cloud of debris which in turn makes future collisions more likely.
Jeff Bezos blasts off
Amazon founder and (still) CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin will send its first crew into space on 20 July. The space firm is offering one seat to the highest bidder in an online auction. The winner will be announced on 12 July.
The space passengers will enjoy just ten minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth. The reusable rocket which will carry them will be named after Alan Shepard (1923-98), the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth 60 years ago this month. (It’s funny how everyone knows the name of the first man to go into space – Yuri Gagarin – but very few know who was the second, even though he later walked on the Moon (Apollo 14, 1971).)
The craft will spend about four minutes at an altitude exceeding 100 kilometres (60 miles) above the surface of the Earth from which point passengers will be able to see the curvature of the planet. Whether that flight will turn a profit is doubtful. The real point is that Mr Bezos wants to showcase his space company’s capabilities – and he will be running Blue Origin full time come the autumn of this year.
Blue Origin’s Project Kuiper plans to launch 3,200 LEO mini satellites in a direct challenge to SpaceX. In late April Mr Bezos disputed NASA’s award of the lunar landing vehicle contract to SpaceX by filing a formal complaint with the US Government Accountability Office. Mr Musk responded with a mocking tweet. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander will reportedly be ready by 2024.
Meanwhile, back at NASA…
NASA has been delighting space enthusiasts over the last month with photos of its mini-helicopter (more accurately perhaps, a drone) Ingenuity flying over the surface of Mars. Ingenuity was attached to the Perseverance craft which touched down on the red planet on 18 February.
Ingenuity had been feeding off Perseverance’s power supply, but since detaching itself it uses batteries to power an integral heater which stops its components from freezing during the bitter Martian night when temperatures drop to minus 90 Celsius. It is flying in an atmosphere that is only one percent the density of the Earth’s which makes obtaining lift much harder; but on the other hand, Martian gravity is only one third of that back on Earth.
I doubt that the bid to enable high net worth individuals to feel weightless for a half an hour or so will never be an economically viable business. That is the loss leader. The real business will be ferrying working astronaut-scientists to space stations – and to the Moon by 2024 and to Mars by 2035 – and to launch communications networks. Though a niche market is likely to emerge in transporting people with generous expense accounts from London to Sydney in under two hours.
Last month, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire co-founder of Virgin Galactic (NYSE:SPCE), sold more than $150 million of stock in the space venture, reducing his stake by around three percent to 24 percent. While Virgin Galactic is focussed on space tourism, it seems that Sir Richard will use the proceeds to fund his terrestrial travel businesses, of which, of course, the ailing airline Virgin Atlantic. He sold $400 million of stock in Virgin Galactic for a similar purpose last year.
Silicon Valley investor Chamath Palihapitiya became chairman of Virgin Galactic when it went public in 2019. He also sold six million shares in the company last month to raise $200 million. He announced that these funds would be used for a major investment dedicated to the fight against climate change. Virgin Galactic is yet to carry out a passenger flight to the edge of outer space beyond the Karman Line 62 miles above the Earth.
Not forgetting China and Russia
China will be launching its own space station next year. We can expect that Russian cosmonauts will be joining their Chinese counterparts. China also announced last month that it is planning a defensive system to prevent asteroids colliding with the Earth as part of its long-term space ambitions. These include a mission soon to land a probe on an asteroid which will take rock samples and return them to Earth. China expects that it will be launching thousands of manned space flights a year by 2045. Last December, China successfully brought moonrock back to Earth using an unmanned probe.
Russia is planning to launch its own permanent space station in 2045, having announced that it will withdraw from the ISS after current agreements expire in 2024. This reflects heightened tensions with the US with which Russia has collaborated in space effectively since the 1990s. Yuri Borisov, a deputy prime minister with responsibility for Russia’s space programme said that the ISS was ageing rapidly and that it made no sense to maintain it beyond 2025.
The ISS was launched in 1998 with the backing of the space agencies of Russia, the USA, Canada, Japan and the European Union. After the US mothballed its space shuttle programme in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, first developed in the 1960s, launched from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan, became the only link with the ISS. That has obviously now changed given SpaceX’s new role as NASA’s go-to astronaut carrier.
Last month, Russia and the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight; but some industry experts have expressed doubt that Russia has the technology needed to build a new space station from scratch on its own.
Further, China and Russia have agreed to build a joint base on the Moon. A memorandum was signed last month between Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency and the China National Space Administration. The lunar station will be a complex of research facilities that will either be on the surface of the Moon or in its orbit – which suggest to me that they haven’t got very far with the design.
Last week debris from a 21-tonne Chinese rocket, Long March 5B, was scattered across the Middle East in one of the largest uncontrolled re-entries in space history. NASA criticised its Chinese counterpart for failing to meet responsible standards of space safety. The first launch of this rocket in May last year also concluded with an uncontrolled re-entry with debris damaging buildings in the Ivory Coast. The Chinese for their part have offered neither explanation nor apology.
I attended yet another scaled-down funeral this week. This time, under the moist blossom of the Garden of England. Masked, socially distanced, mourners. Recorded music. A robust and confident Catholic send-off.
And yet the mood was upbeat. Death is a release for some – just as the well are being released from their confinement. Even as we mourn our losses, there is everything to play for.
I think there is going to be one Hell of a wake, post-Covid.