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Rwanda is going to send 300000 satellites, the calculation and chaos behind the space circle

2024-07-24 Update From: SLTechnology News&Howtos shulou NAV: SLTechnology News&Howtos > IT Information >

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This article comes from the official account of Wechat: back to Park (ID:fanpu2019), author: Lee Xianhuan

In order to compete for limited orbital resources and frequency bands, various countries and satellite companies have submitted applications for the launch of more than 1 million satellites. But this is only a "paper" satellite feast, most of the satellites will not be actually launched. Behind the false prosperity, the problems caused by the lag of the existing satellite management system and space congestion have been exposed, and it is time to adjust the rules and fix loopholes.

Under the cloak of technology, some bizarre phenomena are unfolding in the satellite industry. For example, Rwanda, which is located in the interior of Africa, says it will launch 300000 satellites into space.

Regardless of whether the country is willing and necessary to achieve this goal, it may take more than 100 years to deploy according to the existing human rocket capabilities. But this goal, which no one will take seriously, so openly appeared on the international stage and submitted to the United Nations subsidiary agencies in the form of an official document application.

Perhaps it is because it is developing so fast that contradictions and chaos in the satellite industry are emerging. The example of Rwanda is just one example. In fact, the satellite plans put forward by various countries in recent years are so ambitious that the total number of launches is expected to reach one million. But in fact, there are still less than 10,000 satellites in Earth orbit, and most of the planned satellites have not been built, but remain on paper forever.

What's the reason? The simple question involves complex factors such as the space vision of various countries and companies, the manufacturing and launch cost of space missions, and the iteration of the management system. In this paper, we start with a new study to unravel the "chaos" of the huge satellite system and the various reasons and motives behind it, so as to further understand how our satellites will be managed in the future. Where is the development of human satellite industry going?

Starting with 1 million "paper" satellites, an article published in Science magazine recently pointed out that between 2017 and 2022, documents submitted to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) showed that more than 1 million satellites were planned to be launched, involving more than 300 satellite constellations.

This is a rather outrageous number. According to the statistics of space agencies of various countries, the current number of man-made satellites in Earth orbit is about 7000-8000, and a considerable number of them are no longer working. In view of this, at present, the number of satellites submitted by various countries is more than 100 times this number.

This article, published on Science, uncovers the absurd reality of millions of "paper" satellites.

Pre-application is a required action for the construction of constellation system at present. Before launching a satellite, the government of a country must submit a satellite plan to the ITU several years in advance, which, as a regulator, coordinates the radio spectrum for all parties to ensure that satellites do not fight each other, that is, new satellite signals do not affect or even drown existing satellite signals. Feasibility aside, the problems created by the million satellite project, whether it is true or not, are obvious:

1. If most of the satellites involved in these applications are about the same, it means that thousands of rockets will be ignited and lifted up in the next few years, and the orbit of satellites will make space more crowded, and the problems of collisions and signal conflicts will be greatly aggravated.

2. If operators do not intend to launch these satellites at all, that is, they stay on "paper", they may be trying to occupy a satellite position first, attract the attention of investors, or eventually resell the radio spectrum. But this also reveals that there are obvious loopholes in the current management system, which can no longer keep up with the progress of the aerospace industry.

Who is applying? In fact, most applications are very strange to the naked eye. Typically, the Rwandan government submitted two satellite constellation applications to ITU in September 2021, totaling more than 300000, causing a global sensation. By contrast, SpaceX, which currently launches the most satellites, has a total of about 5000. Rwanda, located in East Africa, is still one of the least developed countries in the world as announced by the United Nations. Its economy is mainly agriculture and animal husbandry, but it is still not self-sufficient in food. In a country with a population of just over 1000 million and less than two Beijing-sized countries, the per capita GDP in 2020 is less than US $1,000, and the national GDP is about US $11 billion, which is far from enough for them to build so many satellites.

Penetrating the actual applicants behind the Rwandan government, we can take a closer look at the digital games of satellite operators. In fact, the sponsor behind the application, submitted through the government of Rwanda, is E-Space, a French company. In addition, the company submitted a plan for more than 100000 satellite constellations through French officials in 2023.

The real sponsor of Rwanda's 300000 satellite project is the French company. But they never thought they would actually launch so many. CEO said publicly that it would "launch at least 30,000", while their director of product development had a caliber of "only a few thousand satellites."

As they do, it is quite common for a company to submit applications in different countries and regions. For example, OneWeb, which operates more than 600 satellites, has submitted 6118 satellite documents through three countries (Mexico, France and the United Kingdom), while SpaceX has submitted applications involving tens of thousands of satellites through the United States, Norway, Germany and Tonga.

Similar practices can be seen in the shipping industry. Due to looser regulations and enforcement and lower operating costs, more than 44 per cent of the world's ships are registered in Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands.

Through the application, access to satellite orbit, subsequent resale to make money is also one of the motives. Tonga, a small Pacific island country that has never launched a satellite, applied for nine satellite orbits in the 1980s and rented them out for millions of dollars. Now they are once again interested in the satellite business, and SpaceX submitted nearly 30, 000 satellite applications through Tonga in October 2023.

In addition, countries large and small, including China, Germany, Spain, Norway, France and Solomon Islands, have submitted a large number of satellite documents to ITU. " But it's not just these huge numbers that interest us, "Ivan Wright, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and one of the authors of the paper, said in an interview." the more we study the problems of these constellations, the more we find that ITU regulation has completely lagged behind. " He said that due to financial problems, political changes or technical problems, many "paper" satellites will never be launched.

Why didn't you send it if you applied? The first is ability.

Man's ability to send things into space is limited. Statistics show that a total of 186 orbital launches were carried out in 2022, with 178 successful launches, involving 8 countries and regions, sending 2497 payloads and 24 astronauts into orbit. Without counting this year's figures, this is already the year with the largest number of rocket launches, and it can be regarded as the largest transport capacity in the world at this stage, with a maximum of more than 2,000. At this rate, it will take more than four hundred years for 1 million satellites to be sent.

Then there is the cost.

Take the most closely watched Starlink, for example, Morgan Stanley estimated the manufacturing cost of Starlink satellites at $1 million per satellite, while Musk has publicly said that the cost of a single satellite is expected to drop to $500000. As the satellite manufacturing cost has not been announced by Starlink, and the specific figures will continue to change with the iteration of technology and the expansion of production scale, this paper takes its range, and then estimates the exchange rate between RMB and US dollar at 7:1: the cost of a Starlink is about 3.5 million to 7 million yuan. As a comparison, the research report released by Zheshang Securities in September 2022 pointed out that the average cost of low-orbit communication satellites in China is about 30 million yuan.

As the size of Starlink satellites has reached 5000, far more than their peers, so in the same class of satellites, it is generally believed that SpaceX can keep the cost of satellites to a minimum. But even so, building satellites, especially satellite networking, is still a huge business that started at a cost of 10 billion dollars.

There are also launch costs, which account for nearly half of the cost structure or more.

SpaceX's own Falcon 9 rocket is the only carrier rocket in the world to achieve normal reuse, with an average single launch load mass of 11.13 tons, and more than 100 successful recoveries, significantly reducing the cost of entering space. At present, the public quotation for Falcon 9 Leo launch service is about 26000 yuan / kg (it should be noted that this is an external quotation rather than a cost price). Compared with other rocket launch services on the market, the price is half or more cheaper.

When the launch prices of different types of rockets gain cost advantages in all directions, Starlink has barely become a low-orbit satellite constellation that touches the profit line. Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said in an interview with the media that Starlink expects to start making a profit in 2023. The Starlink system is expected to cost about $2.41 billion a year, and since last year, Starlink has more than 1 million users worldwide.

From this dimension, if we look at other companies whose manufacturing costs and launch costs are higher than SpaceX, there are no small challenges and doubts, and it is even more difficult to expect profits. Therefore, it is very reasonable for people to be cautious and conservative when investing a lot of money in this extremely laborious but not necessarily flattering business.

If you don't send it, why should you apply? At this time, when we look at the application documents involving 1 million satellites, when everyone knows that the plan will not be implemented, whether enterprises or governments continue to hand over materials, there must be quite practical interests. In addition to show (commercial and political), there is also important strategic significance: to seize orbital resources.

Satellite orbit and frequency band are regarded as a strategic resource, which is not only limited, but also has advantages and disadvantages. Because the propagation loss of different frequency bands is different, all parties need to compete for better positions. Internationally, satellite frequency and orbital resources are mainly used in the way of "first-come-first-served". As a result, developed countries have taken the lead in launching satellites, occupying priority positions, leading to congestion in high-quality orbits and frequencies. The ITU, which received applications, is the organization responsible for coordinating and managing satellite orbits.

A schematic diagram of the distribution of Starlink satellites in Earth orbits. in addition, the situation is also different in different orbits.

For example, in the geostationary orbit, which is about 35000 kilometers from the ground, most satellites exist as a single satellite, so the orbit resources are relatively sufficient, and the management of the orbit by ITU is relatively simplified. When the 10-15-year life of the satellite ends, it will usually be artificially controlled to rise to an altitude of about 300km, enter the satellite's "grave orbit" and become space junk, and the original position will be released.

But the fierce competition for low-Earth orbit is different. Hundreds of Leo satellites need to form constellation networks at different heights below 2000 kilometers, and they do not have to be decommissioned all at once. When some satellites are damaged or their life is over, operators will usually launch new satellites to supplement, rather than release the entire orbital resources. Therefore, the situation will become "occupy forever", and the latter may face a passive situation in which there is no track available in the future.

How many satellites can eventually be accommodated at the altitude of 300-1000 km in the earth's low orbit? There are many versions of the answer to this question. But what is certain is that satellite security will become an increasingly thorny issue. If 10% of the applied satellites are eventually launched, there will be 100000 more satellites in low-Earth orbit and become more crowded, and collisions between satellites will produce a large amount of space debris, which in turn will lead to more collisions.

Against this background, according to a regulatory filing submitted by SpaceX in December last year, the automatic collision avoidance system of Starlink conducted 26037 orbital collision avoidance exercises in the two years from December 1, 2020 to November 30, 2022, with an average of more than 10 orbit changes, indicating that the threat is real.

No matter which angle it is deduced from, although space is infinite, the space left for later generations will become smaller and smaller, and orbital resources will become an important threshold.

What shall I do? The contradiction is becoming more and more fierce, and the phenomenon of millions of "paper" satellites shows that the current satellite management system is no longer sufficient to support the healthy growth of the satellite industry.

Of course, to a large extent, this is also due to the fact that the industry is growing faster than previously expected. With reference to the development of the navigation industry, we began to set foot in the ocean in the great navigation era of the 15th-17th century, and then the industrial revolution and the development of modern shipping technology pulled us into the era of modern navigation industry. From then on, how should the high seas, which accounts for more than 60% of the world's ocean area, be managed? It is only in the long-term seesaw that countries gradually form the current common governance system.

Space development is the new era of great navigation. For outer space, which is more than 100 kilometers from the ground, it is a space with larger space and far rougher management at present.

In addition, space is also a field that desperately needs order. The satellite is in orbit, like a highway walking in space, flying at a speed of 7-8 kilometers per second. Once the collision produces more debris, no one can bear and save the consequences. In this context, space satellite management involves the supervision and coordination of satellite orbits, spectrum, space debris, international cooperation and other aspects, which is very important to ensure the safety, sustainability and effectiveness of space activities.

This puts a higher demand on ITU, a UN-affiliated body that predates the UN itself, bringing together 193 member States every three to four years to discuss new rules for global communications. It is not without efforts. In 2019, ITU member states adopted a regulation for the networking of satellite constellations: to launch 10 per cent of satellites within two years after the first launch, 50 per cent within five years, and complete the launch of the entire constellation within seven years.

At that time, the starting point of this rule was to avoid letting the company occupy the orbit without sending satellites. There is a rule that says, "the rule for frequency assignment of unplanned satellite cyberspace radio stations is available for seven years." That is, the first satellite can be launched within seven years after the submission of the document. There is a loophole. In the context of over-submission of applications, this sentence can be interpreted as: you need to wait seven years to confirm that these "paper" satellites are fake. And according to the rules of ITU, if the satellite constellation is not used for seven years after a successful application, the final result is only "the expiration of the validity of radio frequency and related orbital resources," indicating that such "space-occupying" behavior does not have much cost and punishment.

The authors of the article said that ITU should consider speeding up the process and could introduce charging mechanisms to limit large-scale or speculative applications.

Clearly, it is time to adjust the rules and fix loopholes. From November 20 to December 15, the World Radiocommunication Conference was held in the United Arab Emirates. In the article, the author pointed out that the ITU should revise the new rules as soon as possible to solve the existing chaos of satellite constellations.

The author said in an interview with the media that this year's meeting will focus on issues related to satellite constellations and also put forward reference ideas. for example, to limit the number of satellites in each constellation, to apply for higher fees on a larger scale, or to adopt a similar approach of "collecting deposits", allowing companies to pay money when applying for satellite orbits. get the "deposit" back after the end of satellite service, and so on.

As long as companies and governments are not allowed to apply randomly, on the one hand, the limited satellite orbit resources will be better utilized; at the same time, ITU will also be able to see more clearly the true wishes of all parties, so as to predict the number of satellites in the future, make corresponding orbit and frequency arrangements, and ultimately reduce the risk of radio frequency interference and inter-satellite collisions.

Schematic map of decommissioned satellites in orbit? source: European Space Agency in addition, the stricter management of satellites by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States is also worthy of reference. Last year, the FCC passed a new rule that requires the "aftermath" of satellites to be cleaned up by operators within five years after the end of the mission to avoid becoming uncontrolled garbage in Earth orbit.

That's not just talk. Recently, Dish, an American television company, became the first satellite operator to be punished for the new rule. Dish said one of its satellites had insufficient fuel to move to "grave orbit" when it was decommissioned, and the company received a $150000 fine. Although the number is small, but affected by this, the company's share price fell sharply, resulting in a market capitalization loss of $100 million.

As the regulations become more detailed, the industry judges that the need to clean up space debris will increase significantly in the future. In fact, cleaning up space junk is one of the entrepreneurial directions in the commercial aerospace field in recent years. These proposals and new rules point to a more orderly and carefully managed space era.

As for the future management of space, the most urgent thing to do now is to deal with the millions of "paper" satellites. "Earth orbit is a limited resource that belongs to all mankind, and we should maintain it," the author said. "

reference

[1] https://theconversation.com/over-the-past-six-years-governments-proposed-launching-over-one-million-satellites-but-where-will-they-all-go-215979

[2] https://www.space.com/million-satellites-congest-low-earth-orbit-study-shows

[3] https://www.astronomy.com/science/study-satellite-traffic-jam-calls-for-urgent-changes/

[4] https://adf-magazine.com/2022/08/rwanda-plans-to-launch-satellite-constellations/

[5] https://phys.org/news/2023-10-itu-tighten-orbit-satellites.html

[6] https://www.space.com/how-many-satellites-fit-safely-earth-orbit

[7] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2221343120

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