Small satellite constellations could cover the entire world with broadband internet service … if they attract enough investors. Plans to build constellations of hundreds low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites to crisscross the globe has been proposed and failed in earlier eras. But a new study by Northern Sky Research, “Small Satellite Markets, 5th Edition” predicts that small sats will attract $37 billion in revenues from manufacturing and launch services over the next nine years.
There has been a dip in small sat launches from about 300 in 2017 to 200 in 2018, the study says. Between now to 2027, however, Northern Sky estimates there will be 6,500 small sat launches. “New companies in different tiers of both value and supply chains[will] enter the market and unlock the promised value and solve current bottlenecks,” the company says.
The FCC’s action earlier this month to authorize four non-geostationary orbiting (NGSO) satellite projects lends to the study’s conclusions. Those four projects, one U.S.-based and three foreign-based, call for the eventual launch of a total 7,335 small sats – significantly more than the Northern Sky study forecasts. That does not include the satellite launches proposed in three other NGSO projects the FCC approved prior to this month.
Clearly, the industry does not necessarily expect all these NGSO projects to succeed. That seems to be implied in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement after approving the four projects.. “Our approach to these applications reflects this Commission’s fundamental approach: encourage the private sector to invest and innovate and allow market forces to deliver value to American consumers,” he said.
“While a growing market, the small satellite industry does present highly challenging business cases. From LEO constellations to dedicated launchers, long-term sustainability remains one of the biggest concerns,” said Shagun Sachdeva, co-author of the Northern Sky study.
The most aggressive NGSO company and the one that perhaps will be the leading indicator of future small-sat success, is SpaceX. It was the largest constellation proposal approved this month with 7,000 satellites. That is on top of an earlier 4,425-satellite SpaceX proposal the Commission approved earlier this year. The number of satellites in orbit by SpaceX alone raises the issue of orbital debris, another topic that could affect the long-term success of small-sat business.
FCC approval of the SpaceX plan was conditional on the company later submitting a debris mitigation plan for approval to the Commission. “While we appreciate the level of detail and analysis that SpaceX has provided for its orbital debris mitigation and end-of-life disposal plans, we conclude that the unprecedented number of satellites proposed by SpaceX and the other NGSO FSS systems in this processing round will necessitate a further assessment of the appropriate reliability standards of these spacecraft, as well as the reliability of these systems’ methods for deorbiting the spacecraft,” the FCC said in its order.
The vision of very fast internet services that provide the same level of speed and latency to every location in the world, both rural and urban, is compelling. It would be everything, as Chairman Pai said, from “high-speed broadband services in remote areas to offering global connectivity to the Internet of Things through ‘routers in space’ for data backhaul.” But the economic and regulatory success of small-sat services is not yet a certainty.