What is a Satellite Mega-Constellation? Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Soumyaa Rawat
  • May 08, 2021
  • Science & Technology
What is a Satellite Mega-Constellation? Advantages and Disadvantages title banner

Understanding Satellite Mega-Constellations

 

A Satellite Mega-Constellation is a group of man-made satellites operating together to cover a vast span of the globe or even the whole land mass. Used for global communications coverage, satellite mega-constellations are present in the outer atmosphere of the planet and are connected to each other through the technology of inter-satellite communication. 

 

Visible to numerous stations located on Earth, satellite mega-constellations work on the basis of  low earth orbit (LEO) that refers to the placement of satellite orbits at a low altitude (<2000km). A network of satellites revolving on various orbits, a satellite mega-constellation involves satellites revolving on various orbits placed near to each other.  

 

Existent in outer space, leo satellite constellations revolve around orbits with an altitude of upto 2000km or less than that. The concept of satellite mega-constellations has been in trend ever since the 1990s, but it has only been in the 21st century that constellations were actually developed in outer space. 

 

Residing in the space cavity that is congested with such constellations, satellite mega-constellations are about to escalate in terms of popularity in the coming years. 

 

Majorly functional in the telecommunications sector, satellite mega-constellations have a huge commercial significance in terms of global connectivity and the distribution of the internet services. As more than four satellites are required to be grouped to make a satellite mega-constellation, these networks enable a set of satellites to be visible at once. 

 

This means that even if some satellites in a constellation are unable to connect with stations located on Earth, there are still many other satellites that can do the task required. 

 

One of the largest satellite mega-constellation is Starlink by SpaceX. The expanse of Starlink coverage in terms of internet connectivity will become unbeatable in the coming months with more and more satellites being added to the network.  

 

“As of August 23rd 2020, SpaceX's Starlink internet satellite constellation numbers a total of 653 operational satellites deployed. Starlink is one of the pioneers for providing internet connectivity from orbit over the whole globe. The ultimate aim is to utilise 12,000 of these small satellites, each weighing between 227–260 kg (500–573 lb), orbiting at a height of 550 kilometres (340 mi) or below. When each of the individual satellites reach their end of life, they are deorbited to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.” (largest satellite constellation

 

Why are they important?

 

The world is becoming interconnected as the Internet of Things is unfolding the wonders it can do. Satellites have been in outer space for a long time, however, satellite mega-constellations are a recent development as the internet is becoming widespread. 

 

In order to keep the world hooked to a network of satellites that stay in loop throughout, mega-constellations like Starlink and  OneWeb have emerged to be the pioneers in this field. The significance of satellite mega-constellations is hidden in our day-to-day lives - the omnipresence of the internet and the widespread use of this commodity. 


This image visually depicts the design of a satellite mega-constellation placed in outer space.

leo mega-constellation, (Source)


With more than 3 billion internet users in the world, the global internet network still eyes the addition of a major chunk of the human population to be added to this list. Even though terrestrial telecommunication technology has advanced rapidly, satellite mega-constellations can lessen the digital divide that continues to be a concern for the global population. 

 

With the coming of satellite mega-constellations that have covered the planet like a blanket, even the remotest areas stand a fair chance to get access to the internet and stay connected to other corners of the globe. 

 

As 5G internet has successfully arrived in different countries, the need for better connectivity lures big brands like SpaceX and Amazon to enter the sphere of satellite mega-constellations and make the most out of this technology. 

 

The 5G network architecture has pushed technological advances like these and soon, this technology will connect every human to the internet. 

 

Let us understand the significance of satellite mega-constellations through the example of Starlink.    

 

(Related blog: Role of Technology in Neuralink)

 

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Satellite Mega-Constellations 

 

The coming of satellite mega-constellations has taken everyone by surprise. The next-generation innovations attached with this concept highlight the various advantages and disadvantages of satellite mega-constellations that we will discuss in this segment. 

 

Merits

 

  1. Global Connectivity

 

One of the biggest benefits of satellite mega-constellations is that they encourage global connectivity. 

 

With the aim to provide internet to people residing in any and every part of the world, satellite mega-constellations have emerged as the pioneer of decreasing digital divide that continues to draw the attention of millions of scholars and activists. 

 

The humongous reach that these satellite mega-constellations have on the world will determine future technological advancements, including 5G internet and so on. 

 

Furthermore, the widespread presence of thousands of satellites will ensure that no spot in the world is kept aloof considering the reach these satellites will have. 

 

“Launching a constellation of tens, hundreds or even thousands of satellites has become a serious option for providing ubiquitous telecommunications services. This is reflected by the many initiatives spawned in the recent past, ranging from nano and micro satellites systems dedicated to M2M/IoT, to the Megaconstellations of small and medium size satellites, like those envisaged by Oneweb, Leosat and Telesat, to mention but a few. Indeed, constellations of satellites providing access to currently unserved or under-served regions are one of the latest areas of growth for the space industry.”

SATCOM CONSTELLATION INITIATIVE overview

 

  1. The idea of Global Internet

 

One of the most important commodities in the world, the internet is opening millions of opportunities for people across the world. The satellite mega-constellations aim to advance the technology of the internet and connect each and every individual with this technology to ensure global connectivity. 

 

As many telecommunication companies are preparing to launch their respective satellite mega-constellations in outer space, there will also be an increase in global internet access. 

 

Thanks to satellite mega-constellations and the technology of inter-satellite communication that have together triggered the availability of internet throughout the globe. Although this uniformity has not been completely achieved, it is in the process and is likely to be completed within this decade. 

 

  1. Cheaper Components

 

Unlike single satellites, satellite mega-constellations are comparatively cheaper. 

 

This advantage of cheaper components of satellite mega-constellations makes the process of installing such networks in outer space much easier and affordable. 

 

Currently, Starlink, a SpaceX launch has over 12,000 satellites that have created a web around the planet providing internet access to many corners of the world. 

 

What’s more is the cheap cost of this network that involves small-sized satellites existing in an LEO, making this network affordable for experiments and commercial success as well.  

 

 

Demerits

 

  1. Space Junk Hazard

 

First and foremost disadvantage of satellite mega-constellations is that it will lead to severe space junk hazard which will ultimately exert ecological impacts in the long run. 

 

The world is already fighting against the climate change crisis and adding to this, satellite mega-constellations have a demerit that is also one of the major features of this concept.

 

 As the satellites in these constellations are cheaper in comparison to single satellite networks, these satellites expire after a certain amount of time. Further, the debris of these expired satellites dissolves in outer space leading to the burning of the miniscule elements of such satellites. 

 

With more and more constellations coming up, the space junk hazard is a great concern that has been highlighted by many scholars and scientists in recent times. 

 

While scientists are looking for notable space junk solutions, the establishment of satellite mega-constellations will only add to the burden.

 

 

  1. Light Pollution 

 

Another disadvantage of satellite mega-constellations is that it leads to light pollution from space, obstructing the natural dark sky during the nighttime. While the sun provides sunlight during the daytime, the nighttime witnesses no such light other than the luminous rays of the moon that cause darkness of the sky. 

 

Due to this darkness, the stars in the sky are visible to humans making the sky look beautiful and heavenly in the nights. However, satellite mega-constellations will obstruct this scenic beauty of the sky and will cause more light pollution as the satellites will illuminate the dark skies, causing unnatural brightness and severe light pollution during the nighttime. 

 

This demerit is dangerous so much so that the satellites of the constellation Starlink are already visible during the nighttime encouraging scientists to establish such demerits. 

 

 

  1. Astronomical Endangerment

 

Astronomy will be in great danger if satellite mega-constellations see the dawn of the day. Why? Well, the light pollution caused by these satellite networks will obstruct astronomical studies as the Earth’s exosphere will become congested due to the presence of such satellites. 

 

As astronomists suggest, satellite mega-constellations like Starlink impact on astronomy will altogether endanger astronomy and its related science in the coming few years. 

 

Although many have warned against this consequence, no act of protocol or policing has been put in place to regulate the launch of satellite mega-constellations. 

 

 

Conclusion

 

The future with satellite mega-constellations looks technologically advanced yet substantially harmful. In the coming future, pioneers of satellite mega-constellations like OneWeb and Starlink are about to expand their reach and the number of satellites they place in outer space. 

 

In the long run, internet connectivity will boost up as more and more telecommunication firms are committing themselves to launching such mega constellations of satellites. However, the overall impact of these networks will likely harm the ecological state of the world which, as a matter of fact, is already in ruins. 

 

In addition, the unparalleled risk of collision of satellites of different constellations will further strain the future environment of outer space considering that multiple constellations will operate at the same time. 

 

While the coming of satellite mage-constellations is a boon for the technological society, it is also a bane for the social realm owing to the severe impacts that it has already begun to have on the planet. 

 

The future with satellite mega-constellations looks a bit hazy as development and deterioration emerge together.

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