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The Rise of the Satellite Mega Constellation

Less and less space in space

Ever wonder how many satellites are in space? Or what it would look like if you could peer down on the Earth and see them all?

Well, here you go:

Source: LeoLabs

That image is from a live visualization by a company called LeoLabs. You can play around with it yourself here.

The green objects are active satellites (currently numbering at over 3,000) and the purple ones are debris (estimates are at about 34,000 greater than 10cm in size and potentially hundreds of thousands of smaller ones).

The visualization actually makes the region around Earth seem more crowded than it is. In reality those dots are tiny, just a few meters across at most, and the space between them is massive, typically tens to hundreds of miles.

But in the coming years, it’s about to get a lot more crowded. Historically, a typical public or private organization would launch a handful of satellites to complete whatever business activity or mission it conducted in space. Increasingly though, organizations are choosing to meet their goals by launching dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of satellites into space in the form of satellite constellations. This has the potential to very much shift the dynamics of the space industry.

This post will address

  • Why is space activity increasingly being conducted via constellations?

  • What challenges need to be addressed in a world dominated by constellations?

  • What are some of the companies looking to meet these new challenges?

I think these are the kind of questions an investor should be asking in order to better understand what the future of the space industry will look like, so let’s consider them together.

Why Use Constellations?

To consider why space applications are being conducted via constellations, let’s look at a single application; satellite internet. The biggest provider of satellite broadband by market share is currently HughesNet which offers this service through a small number of big geostationary satellites that are really far away from earth. It’s nice to have the satellite in a geostationary orbit because at that further distance it can orbit earth more slowly, at the same rate the earth rotates. This means that it can stay over the same point on Earth all day and night. Also, when the satellite is far away it can see more of the Earth’s surface, so you need fewer satellites to cover the planet. What would happen though if you switch to using hundreds of satellites that are traveling in low earth orbit, much closer to the earth?

Rough comparison of LEO and GEO orbital distances, not to exact scale. Source: Via Satellite

  • Robustness: For one, the entire constellation becomes much more robust because there are now hundreds of satellites serving somewhat overlapping functions, meaning if any individual node fails then there is less damage to the whole constellation. Suddenly instead of needing every satellite to work perfectly all of the time, now you just need almost all of them to work almost all of the time. Perfection is expensive.

  • Proximity: Simply being closer to the Earth can make the satellite better at its function. A LEO satellite is less than 1,000km from the Earth’s surface whereas a GEO satellite is about 35,000km above the Earth. In communications that’s a round trip difference of about .25 seconds. While that might seem small, in the world of space-based broadband internet for example it prohibits major applications such as online video gaming.

  • Low Cost Launch: This is less a benefit of satellite constellations and more an enabling factor. Up until ten years ago, a single rocket launch would often cost upwards of $100M. SpaceX was the first to change that paradigm in the last decade and newer launch companies entering the market in the coming years promise to further reduce launch costs. It can take dozens or even hundreds of launches to get a constellation into orbit, which until recently would have been considered impossibly expensive.

What becomes important in a world of satellite constellations?

Moving towards constellations of satellites will have the impact of increasing the number of satellites by orders of magnitude. There are currently about 2,700 active satellites in space. The three largest internet broadband satellite projects are aiming to each add an additional up to 42,000 (SpaceX’s Starlink), 3,236 (Amazon’s Project Kuiper), and 650 (OneWeb).

Astronomers see SpaceX's Starlink as an ominous sign of things to come - Axios

A batch of 60 SpaceX Starlink satellites being deployed from a Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites will separate and over time spread out in orbit around the Earth.

From an investing perspective, I think it’s important for us to try and think about what becomes important in a world where thousands more satellites have to be launched and operated in space over such a short period of time.

  • Space Situational Awareness: One challenge of having that many satellites in space is simply knowing where they are. Once a satellite is launched into space, its important to immediately identify its location so that the satellite operator can begin sending up communications. Furthermore, atmospheric drag in lower orbits can cause the satellite’s orbit to change in hard to predict ways. As a result, the satellite’s location must be regularly reconfirmed to make sure it isn’t veering too close to an intersection with other spacecraft. This process of tracking orbiting spacecraft is typically conducted by using radar installations placed around the Earth.

  • Autonomous Spacecraft Management: Right now, when satellite companies or governments are only managing tens of satellites at a time, those operations can broadly be conducted manually with human intervention required for every action. Is that going to be possible when an organization is managing thousands or tens of thousands of satellites? These operations are going to need to be made autonomous in a highly reliable way.

  • Data Management: If a typical satellite imagery company used to have 15 satellites taking pictures of the Earth nonstop but in the future will have 150 satellites doing so, well that’s a lot more data being generated around the clock. Just as with Earth-generated data, space-data needs to be hosted in a way that it can be leveraged seamlessly and effectively. For this reason, many of the cloud infrastructure companies are investing heavily in space data management. This includes Amazon Web Services with their Ground Station as a Service product and Microsoft Azure Space.

  • Debris Management: There are currently no international laws requiring private organizations or government entities to have a plan to remove their satellites from space once the satellites reach the ends of their lives. Unless actively deorbited at the end of their lifetimes, many of these low earth orbit satellites will take up to 5 or 10 years to fall back to Earth with some in higher orbits remaining longer. Crowded debris encircling the Earth can be a danger to active satellites, space stations, and even launch vehicles trying to get off the planet.

  • Cross-Organizational Communications: This might not seem like a sexy topic, but it is critical for a crowded space ecosystem to function healthily. In September 2019, a close encounter occurred between a SpaceX Starlink satellite and a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite. Due to a communication snafu, the ESA couldn’t reach the SpaceX team. Less than an hour before the close encounter (calculated as a 1 in 600 probability of collision) the ESA diverted their satellite and any potential crisis was avoided. While everyone made it through this scenario unscathed, it’s indicative of what is likely to happen a lot more often in the near future. With hundreds of private and governmental organizations needing to rapidly communicate and take action, it will be important that there are well-understood lines of communication between all stakeholders.

What companies are looking to meet these challenges?

Below I’ve included a handful of the companies looking to address these upcoming issues, though it is hardly a comprehensive set. Some of them are early stage venture backed startups, some are maturing companies entering their growth stages, and others are public tech organizations that you likely already know.


It’s taken us 60 years to get from 0 to 3,000 active satellites in orbit and in the next 10 years that number may sharply rise to over 50,000. This is the kind of hockey stick growth that is typical of exponential technologies. I’ve described what I think are some of the challenges that will need to be addressed as this transformation takes place. I believe great businesses will be built solving these problems and I’ll be trying to keep an eye out for them along the way!

Additional Reading

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Want to read more about the small rockets enabling some of this more affordable satellite launch? Read more here.

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