Chinese state media is reporting that start-up satellite Internet firm GalaxySpace is planning to launch 1,000 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, ultimately aiming to compete with SpaceX’s high-profile Starlink constellation.
GalaxySpace was founded in 2016. The company says it’s “committed to mass produce low-cost, high-performance small satellite through agile and fast-iterative development mode, and build the world’s leading LEO broadband satellite constellation and a global coverage with 5G communication network. Our mission is to improve the network connection condition of all regions and individuals, and to provide cost-effective, efficient and convenient broadband networks and services.Providing more accessible knowledge, more equal and extensive information, simpler and convenient communication and more development opportunities for everyone. The mission of GalaxySpace is to Creating global converged 5G communication network.”
Image Credit: GalaxySpace
According to the South China Morning Post (via Yahoo), the first batch of six satellites have already been produced, tested, and delivered to an undisclosed launch site. Beijing-based start-up GalaxySpace, has said it wants to extend China’s 5G coverage around the world and compete with Starlink, owned by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, in the market for high-speed internet services in remote areas. Of course, GalaxySpace’s new constellation of satellites will have quite a bit of catching up with Starlink, which has already launched around 2,000 LEO “birds,” with plans to increase the constellation size to 42,000. Starlink says they offer speeds of up to 110Mbps for consumer use.
According to Chinese media reports, GalaxySpace’s differentiating factor is that it will be the first constellation to deliver 5G connectivity to consumers, potentially offering download speeds of over 500Mbps. That’s an interesting claim, as there are no standards or implementation specs for 5G from anywhere in space. ITU-R M.2150 (formerly IMT 2020.specs) only covers terrestrial 5G services.
Naturally, like all satellite connectivity services, the quality of service will potentially be reduced significantly by poor weather. However, GalaxySpace claims that they will be able to deliver at least 80Mbps second even in the worst possible weather, according to their research.
5G is already prolific throughout China, according to the CCP (if you believe them). Recent figures suggest that by the end of 2021 there were 730 million 5G subscribers in China, over half the total population. As a result, GalaxySpace’s 5G services will likely be offered primarily to overseas companies as well as Chinese government and military activities.
But GalaxySpace is not China’s only growing broadband constellation. Both the Hongyan and Hongyun projects – owned by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, respectively – have been launching test satellites since as early as 2018.
Hongyan is aiming for 324 total satellites in its constellation, while Hongyun will have 157, with the two constellations operating at different altitudes and with different frequencies.
In 2021, with Starlink’s rise to prominence, Chinese authorities were reportedly considering making “major changes” to both the Hongyan and Hongyun projects. What these changes might be is unclear, but it seems likely to be some sort of acceleration in deployment and perhaps scale; China has said repeatedly in recent month that it fears Starlink’s dominance of this emerging industry could represent a threat to national security, especially if these devices are being used clandestinely by the US military.
Last year, Zhu Kaiding, a space engineer from the China Academy of Space Technology, which is working with GalaxySpace on the project, wrote in an academic article that the rise of Starlink had caused a Chinese satellite production line to increase its productivity by more than a third.
In addition to commercial LEO satellite Internet service rivalry, China has identified Starlink, which has signed multimillion dollar contracts with the U.S. military, as a threat to China’s national security. In 2020, researchers with the Chinese National University of Defense Technology estimated that it could increase the average global satellite communication bandwidth available to the U.S. military from 5Mbps to 500Mbps. The researchers also warned that existing anti-satellite weapons technology would find it virtually impossible to destroy a constellation the size of Starlink.
Zhu Kaiding, a space engineer from the China Academy of Space Technology, which is working with GalaxySpace on the project, said the Chinese project was struggling to keep pace with Starlink, which according to Musk is producing six satellites a day.
Zhu did not disclose how quickly China was producing satellites, but in a paper published in domestic journal Aerospace Industry Management in October last year, he said the Starlink program had forced a satellite assembly line in China to increase its productivity by more than a third. Zhu and colleagues have said that more than half the routine checks carried out at the launch site of high-frequency operations have been cancelled to save time.
The new satellites also use many components produced by private companies that have not previously been involved in Chinese space projects – a move that helped reduce the total hardware price of a high-speed internet satellite by more than 80 per cent.
Zhu said that the race against Starlink had put enormous pressure on China’s space industry, because “the technology is complex, the competition fierce, the deadlines tight and the workloads heavy.”
It is likely that the number of civilian users of satellite internet service in China will be limited – most urban residents can access 5G through their phone and broadband services are available in most rural areas – so the most likely customers are overseas companies or the Chinese government and military.
Stepping away from the geopolitical dimension of the satellite broadband space race, it is worth noting that the potential negatives for introducing such an enormous number of satellites into LEO could have for society, from Kessler syndrome caused by the build-up of space debris to the obstruction of terrestrial observatories. In fact, just this week there was a new study, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests that Starlink satellites are hindering the detection of near-Earth asteroids.
“There is a growing concern about an impact of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellations on ground-based astronomical observations, in particular, on wide-field surveys in the optical and infrared,” explained the study.
In 2020, SpaceX had responded to astronomers initial concerns about Starlink disrupting their imagine technology by attaching visors to their new satellites to dampen their brightness. This new study, however, would suggest that this problem is only going to be further exacerbated as the various players continue to launch devices into orbit throughout this year.