scroll to top arrow or icon

The satellite revolution in Low Earth Orbit

Next Giant Leap | The satellite revolution in Low Earth Orbit | GZERO in partnership with MDA | image of the Moon in space

Transcript: Next Giant Leap, Episode 3: The satellite revolution in Low Earth Orbit

Audio: Seven, six, five, four, stage engine start. Three, two, one. And liftoff of this one. We rise together. Back to the moon and beyond.

Kevin Fong: Hi, I'm Kevin Fong, and this is Next Giant Leap, a special podcast series brought to you by GZERO Media in partnership with Canadian space company MDA.

Neil Armstrong: It's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.

Kevin Fong: In 1969, Neil Armstrong, small step onto the lunar surface, brought the first space race to a decisive end. But that Cold War battle for space supremacy was started by the launch of a satellite, Sputnik, a beach ball sized metal sphere lobbed into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik didn't do much apart from beep, but it did blaze the trail for the thousands of satellites that followed. Satellites have transformed weather forecasting, with GPS navigation they keep us from getting lost. They are our eyes in the sky for defense and national security, as well as for disaster response. And of course, they're essential for monitoring environmental change. And let's not forget satellite TV and now the rollout of satellite broadband. The vast majority of satellites are in what's called low earth orbit, or LEO. There's only space between about 100 and 1,200 hundred miles above our heads. And that's where the number is increasing very, very rapidly. This is the focus of today's episode of Next Giant Leap. What's been driving the satellite revolution? What it's delivering, and what's to come? I've been talking to three leading experts in the satellite business. All three will be pitching in over the course of the show. We're going to start with Mike Greenley, who's the CEO of Canadian space company MDA. MDA built the Radarsat family of Earth Observation satellites, and it's also this podcast partner. I began by asking Mike what we can expect to see in low-Earth orbit in the coming years.

Mike Greenley: There has been a tremendous increase, you know, as we've gone from, you know, up to a few thousand items that are in orbit around the Earth. But, you know, we're about to go through a decade, which will cause tens of thousands of items, satellites, to be in orbit around the Earth in a number of different categories. So some of those satellites will be space stations, will move from the International Space Station to commercial space stations, which will be used for tourism, for entertainment as laboratories, for science, as manufacturing, industrial parks, to be able to create things in space. And then, of course, we'll have the next two categories of a lot of communications building networks for the Earth in orbit and Earth observation satellites. So I think we'll see all three categories of sort of a range of space stations and industrial parks, communications and Earth observations expanding dramatically over the next ten years.

Kevin Fong: A vibrant vision of the low-Earth orbit future there. But let's step back to the present. The growth in the number of satellites in operation has been exponential. For some stats, I turn to Carissa Bryce Christensen, a prominent space industry analyst and the founder and CEO of BryceTech, an analytics consulting firm in the field of space and defense.

Carissa Bryce Christensen: In the last 25 years, total satellites have gone from about 500 active satellites, to today around 8000 active satellites. And the addition of those many thousands of satellites has happened in low-Earth orbit or LEO.

Kevin Fong: And we're now in the middle of 2023. What is the rate at which we are deploying new satellites at the moment?

Carissa Bryce Christensen [00:04:22] In the first quarter of this year, we deployed nearly 1000. Let me clarify what the nature of this growth is. Instead of a smaller number of very large satellites, mostly far away, we are seeing many, many small satellites very close in. There's a fair expectation that that will continue. There are companies investing in those systems. Multiple companies deploying systems in low-Earth orbit. We're at a really interesting time right now where those satellites are operating and we are going to see in the next year or two or three how the business case really looks for this new generation of low-Earth orbit satellites.

Kevin Fong: What I wanted to know from MDA's Mike Greenley was what's been powering the explosive rise in those satellite numbers.

Mike Greenley: It seems that the largest driver or enabler has been the decreased cost of launch. And so if we go back to, you know, space shuttle days, there's some number around 18, $20,000 a kilogram that it cost to launch something into orbit back in the days of the space shuttle. Today, that $20,000 a kilogram is about $2,000 a kilogram. You know, a good deal on a modern rocket to get into orbit, but that's much, much more accessible. That allows businesses to be able to, you know, close their business case. If you can build a communication systems or build sensors to observe the earth or build a manufacturing facility that could operate in zero gravity. You can now get it into orbit affordably. The accessibility of launch and the cost of launch continues to decline.

Kevin Fong: And Mike, what has made it so much cheaper over the years?

Mike Greenley: Well, a couple of things. One of them has been the commercialization of launch. So industry's involvement in launch, industry's investment in launch, industry's ability to take risks, to be able to try stuff out, and then to get success. If you have a large government program and it puts a rocket up and it blows up, let's say. You know, the world will say, oh my gosh, like that government agency failed. It didn't work. As you see every day with Space X when they launch, they try stuff out and it blows up, it's just an exciting day. It blew up. We learned a whole bunch of things today. Let's try again. Industry can do that. Industry can try stuff out, use their own investment, combine with government investment, and rapidly accelerate the innovation cycle. So that's been a huge contributor to that, in addition to the technology itself. So in launch, one of the largest things has been the reusability of launch. So that we've seen now, you know, through SpaceX and their rocket systems is the biggest example whereby, you know, you launch a rocket and then the boosters return and they land. And that's almost as exhilarating as watching the launch itself is watching these boosters return and land and be used now dozens of times. So like, the reusability is getting obviously much more bang for the buck in terms of being able to have a rocket that can be used again and again, which further drives down costs. So when we talk about that great expansion to come, you know, there are systems such as, you know, SpaceX's Starship, which are forecast to take the current $2,000 a kilogram down to $200 a kilogram in addition to having, you know, 100 metric tons of cargo capacity, which will just dramatically further change the thinking, I don't think people really understand yet, you know, what transformative impact a ship like Starship is going to have as it gets operational over the next year or two.

Kevin Fong: That growth is not only down to the plummeting launch costs. Over the years, satellites have become smaller and cheaper to make. One of the engineering pioneers of this trend is Professor Martin Sweeting of the UK's University of Surrey. Around 40 years ago, he founded a start up, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, to commercialize small satellites. The company is now owned by the aerospace giant Airbus, with Martin as its executive chair.

Martin Sweeting: It all goes right the way back to the 1980s. And that was the point at which I think for the first time we saw consumer microelectronics emerging. So there was large production quantities and consequently the cost of consumer microelectronics dropped very dramatically. And yet you were able then to construct devices initially microcomputers, which were very capable at very low cost and required much lower powers than that perhaps previously. And I think the you know, the jump, if you like, was to say, right, okay, this commercially off the shelf technology could be applied to space. We can now produce manufacture satellites that could provide useful functions at a fraction of the cost, the fraction of the time and a fraction of the size which made them cheaper to build and to launch. And in the last decade or so, what we've seen is small satellites now having the sort of capability to address real commercial and other governmental applications. And so that really changed the whole commercial environment, but not just the commercial environment. It also has changed the way that the institutional space sector has been thinking about how it addresses some of its, you know, government, civil and indeed military government requirements.

Kevin Fong: And I just want to get a sense of scale here, Martin. We say small. We say large. What did an old fashioned 1990s large satellite look like compared to a small satellite, the sorts of things that you're launching many of today?

Martin Sweeting: Yes. I suppose the easiest thing to think of is, you know, a large satellite will weigh a number of tons, metric tons, and it could be the size of a, you know, of good size. But, then there are mini satellites which are probably the size of a small car. And then we have microsatellites, which are the size of a sort of domestic fridge. And then we have nanosatellites, which are probably the size of your briefcase weighed down to the size of a loaf of bread.

Kevin Fong: It's the micro-sized class of satellites, which is now populating low-Earth orbit at an extraordinary rate.

Audio: SpaceX go for launch. And as you just heard, the launch director has given the final go to proceed for launch. Let's sit back and watch as Falcon 9 takes our 56 StarLink satellites into space.

Audio: Five, four. Three, two, one. Zero. Liftoff. Vehicles pitching down range.

Kevin Fong: That was just one tranche of StarLink communications satellites launched by SpaceX last month, while another launch in May delivered a further 56 and a third launched 52 more.

Audio: 3 2 1 ignition.

Audio: And liftoff of StarLink 5F6. Go StarLink, go Falcon.

Kevin Fong: Ultimately, Space X aims to place some 12,000 of its broadband satellites into orbit, creating a vast fleet, a megaconstellation to offer high speed Internet across the globe. And it's not the only company with this ambition. Carissa Bryce Christensen and then MDA's Mike Greenley.

Carissa Bryce Christensen: So the large constellations of small satellites we see today are really responding to the data demand that we see today. Satellites historically provided broadcast television among other services, but broadcast television has been the driver and the moneymaker of communications satellites. The way that people consume content has really changed. They're no longer watching television broadcasts. They are streaming content via broadband connections. And so the core of the business model for the LEO constellations we're hearing about the communications constellations is serving broadband users and serving them globally and ubiquitously.

Mike Greenley: One of the big things about space based communications and putting up space based networks, is the accessibility of communications, regardless of where you live. So I think back in 2016 or that era, United Nations declared access to the Internet a basic human right. And there's still, you know, more than a third of the world that wouldn't have that access to the Internet. And it's, you know, challenging to create land based laying cables, to be able to create, you know, that communications or putting up towers to do that wirelessly. So space based networks are going to be the ultimate equalizer and form of equity so that regardless of where you live, you can have access to broad based communications, access therefore to an education, access therefore to the ability to start or run a business online. So there's a tremendous impact of space based networks that can come to the Earth.

Kevin Fong: And Martin do you think there is a possible future out there where satellite based technology replaces terrestrial infrastructure wholly, almost entirely. You know, might we see an end to ugly cell towers on top of buildings and town centers?

Martin Sweeting: Depends how far ahead you look. I think where we will see is, of course, initially the real application is serving rural areas. And, of course, that rural community, you know, in the Third World may mean that they can leapfrog the whole infrastructure. So when they're thinking about setting up a communications infrastructure in a remote country, which is just emerging in terms of its economic development, rather than putting in all the fiber and the poles and the wire and copper and everything else, they can jump straight into this. So I think we'll see two different directions. In the developing economies, we will see them leap-frogging, in the developed economies I think we will see the majority of the application, you know, outside the metropolitan areas and then further over the horizon. It'll be interesting to see whether that actually supplants the fiber and the wider infrastructure in the towns and cities.

Kevin Fong: Carissa with your forecast is hats on I want to know if there is a future which has an appetite for these many constellations of small satellites. Do you think that that demand will continue to grow?

Kevin Fong: Well, I can say with certainty demand for broadband data will continue to grow. I think that there is uncertainty around the ability of satellite constellations to effectively meet that demand. That depends on how those systems perform. That depends on the pricing they can offer. That depends on their ability to interconnect with and interact with terrestrial systems and provide seamless service. So there's also an interesting dynamic that we've seen before, and that is systems are being deployed now by SpaceX and by Amazon and by a company based in the U.K. called Oneweb. And those systems are supported by substantial investment. If they financially fail, that doesn't mean they go away. That infrastructure that's been placed in space could be acquired by another group and operated. So the financial and business success of the system may be disconnected from the ongoing availability of that capability. And I think that's a really interesting question that we'll be seeing played out over the next few years.

Kevin Fong: Because the cost of satellites and launching them has dropped so much. Some companies outside of the space industry may choose to go their own way and put up their own satellite constellations.

Mike Greenley: You know, large multinational corporations are starting to look at their own space based networks. So I can rent time on somebody's network if I want some space X time or something on StarLink. But I can also just put up my own network. So we're seeing today large agriculture machinery companies putting up their own space based satellite network to connect all of their farming vehicles around the world for precision agriculture, increasing the speed and accuracy with which you can do agriculture. We're seeing automotive companies putting money aside to be able to connect up all their cars driving around the world that can turn into car features as a service, but that can also relate, you know, cause, you know, smart cars to occur. So as corporations get access to these, you know, private networks that enhance their businesses, a wide range of the services that we receive in our life will be enhanced as a result of those space based networks.

Kevin Fong: Aside from communications, another critical role satellites play is earth observation or remote sensing. There are eyes in the sky looking down everywhere on Earth's surface with ever finer scale resolution in their cameras and sensors. They monitor everything from troop movements to farmer's fields, from storm systems to the temperature of the atmosphere.

Mike Greenley: It started with government, it started with, you know, military being able to track and keep track of military assets, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and automobiles around the world in addition to strong government services such as weather monitoring and the like. That still is a very large part of the Earth observation market. And so we definitely continue to do what's called intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance or ISR for military and security agencies to keep track of what's happening on Earth. And then that's the weather type surveillance has really expanded to keep track of a wide range of different, you know, sort of Earth preservation activities.

Kevin Fong: And that includes tracking the planet's greatest environmental threat, the gathering climate crisis.

Carissa Bryce Christensen: European Space Agency did an analysis and concluded that of the variables that we need to measure in order to understand climate change, to know what's occurring and to figure out how to respond to it, more than half can only be measured by satellites. Today, satellites let us measure greenhouse gas levels. They let us establish baselines for the ocean and for the Earth broadly. They help us understand changes in the atmosphere and in temperature. And so I think that that's a little bit of a lost story around satellites is how critical they are to our understanding of climate change and any pathway forward in managing it.

Kevin Fong: And, Martin, give us a sense of just how powerful Earth observation capabilities have become in recent years.

Martin Sweeting: First of all, we have been gradually in the civil environment, increasing our spatial resolution the size of the objects that we can determine on the ground to the point where we have commercial systems which can image objects with a resolution of about 25 centimeters. The other dimension is that having large numbers of satellites in a constellation dramatically increases the revisit time so we can now monitor rapidly changing phenomena much more quickly so that we can see the same place at least every day or several times every day means that we can be more responsive to assessing and reacting to disasters, for example, we can monitor agriculture more rapidly. That requires being able to look at fields as the vegetation develops over the course of a week. So you know when to put your fertilizer down or when best to actually cut the crop. And also, of course, in terms of just monitoring patterns of life, either for local government use or again, particularly, of course, for defense and security applications.

Kevin Fong: MDA's Radarsat 2 satellites are being used in the defense of the natural environment. Mike Greenley.

Mike Greenley: We've got involved in things like deforestation, for example, you know, keeping track of the density of forests, identifying when those change, being able to know when people are, you know, doing illegal acts and, you know, taking down forest that they shouldn't of and bringing in resources to prevent that. MDA is heavily involved in illegal fishing and unregulated fishing to monitor naval activity, ship activity off the coast of a country in their economic zone and identify, you know, the presence of illegal fishing so that people can very accurately interdict. A lot of countries don't have the resources with airplanes or ships to patrol their entire, you know, 200 mile nautical limit off their country. It's too vast of a piece of real estate. But with space surveillance, they can see that's where the illegal activity is. And you can target right in on it and get after it. So, you know, very powerful effects of space based earth observation.

Kevin Fong: And this sounds like it's going to yield an incredible, huge stream of data. How are we going to filter all that down? How are we going to process that? And in particular here, I'm wondering on the role if any of artificial intelligence AI.

Mike Greenley: Yeah, So there's absolutely a lot of data that comes from Earth observation where, you know,, you know, from MDA's radar based satellites like Radarsat 2 alone, you know, we have, you know, just millions of kilometers of Earth observation imagery from over the years, you know, archived and then collected and being added to on an annual basis. For sure, artificial intelligence and machine learning has a tremendous role to play. I mentioned illegal fishing as an example. You know, for illegal fishing will often fuse, you know, multiple sensor types, radar sensors, optical sensors, radio signals sensors, you know, a number of different sensors from space. We'll fuse them together to say, where are each of the ships? And then we'll use often artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms to look at the behavior of a ship to say, okay, there is a ship. Everything is turned off on that ship, but it's moving in a pattern that is a fishing pattern, that's a fishing vessel doing illegal activity, you know, raise the flag. That's a very simple example whereby you're massively able to process much more data and do it much faster as a result of artificial intelligence and machine learning. One of the benefits of that that's going to come over time is that that processing, which today we often still do in computers on the ground, but that will move up into the satellite, into onboard processing. So, you know, if you wanted to find all the ships instead of bringing all the data down and then analyzing it to find all the ships, if you just process it on the satellite and say, send me the location of ships, then all that processing is done in orbit and just the ship information could come down as a much smaller data package, just the information the customer wants. So it's increasing our speed and capacity to handle volumes of data today and in the future, it will increase the speed and accuracy of just solid information coming directly from satellites as more information is processed on board the satellite itself.

Kevin Fong: The manifold benefits of evermore satellites and increasingly smarter ones are easy to understand. But with many tens of thousands more up in low-Earth orbit by the end of this decade, there's a problem which can't be ignored. Congestion and an increasing risk of collisions. In low-Earth orbit objects are moving at tens of thousands of miles an hour. Collisions can knock out satellites and create high speed debris, which can damage yet more satellites and even space stations. Everyone's concerned as low-Earth orbit becomes busier and busier.

Martin Sweeting: It's busy, not just because of the numbers of satellites, which of course has been dramatically increasing in the last few years even. But because of the debris that has been caused one way and the other that's in orbit. And these can be bits of defunct satellites, satellites which have so spontaneously broken up into thousands of pieces or been deliberately targeted to do that. Plus, just the sort of detritus that comes from launches over the last five decades. The risk is that any of those satellites break up into thousands of their component parts through problems with propulsion or indeed collision. And so the danger is the risk is real, relatively low. There are warnings of conjunctions between satellites and other satellites or debris, you know, numbers of times per day now. And therefore, some of the satellite operators have to maneuver their satellites out of the way. But, you know, it's a growing concern. And therefore, you know, rather like we have on Earth to be careful about what we do with our rubbish on earth and trying to minimize it, We need to do exactly the same thing in space, because if we pollute that very popular and valuable orbit slice from 400 to 2000 kilometers with a lot of junk, we won't be able to benefit from those applications that we just previously been discussing. And it's not just that it will affect one out, one company or one country will affect everybody.

Kevin Fong: And Carissa, what do you think? Too much congestion in low-Earth orbit, a worry or not a worry?

Carissa Bryce Christensen [00:26:35] It's certainly a worry to me. This is absolutely where we should see the benefit of government. Government working for the public good is really the only effective mechanism that we've ever seen for managing significant pollution. The sort of the tragedy of the commons problem. We are moving into a situation in which there are new threats and challenges that require regulation. And I will say that I think we, the United States, we other nations have been slow in moving forward with an appropriate regulatory structure. And I'll also point out with perhaps a bit of a hopeful note that we, the world, have managed this around global air traffic control. And so space traffic management and regulating congestion in space should be feasible this comparable.

Audio: This is the.... We got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

Mike Greenley: Yeah, there were certainly the whole industry is talking about, you know, what level of, you know, regulation or governance do we need to have over ourselves as a global community operating in orbit around the Earth? So there's some minimal governance there, but not a lot and not a lot of behavioral governance. And so there's definitely a lot of conversation about, you know, where is that going to go? If we go back to the early days of ocean based exploration and operation. And we as a global community created the laws of the sea, and we all operate by the laws of the sea or started in aviation and created the laws of flying around the earth. We've been through this a couple of times in the past. Now we need to do it again. For what kind of governance are we going to give ourselves and behavioral norms to be able to operate in orbit around the Earth or at some point live and work on the moon? So there's going to be an expectation that we that we organize ourselves and sort ourselves out in that regard. In the absence of that, we're only destructive to each other. You know, if we start banging into each other or if people start to get combative in any way and, you know, create just debris in orbit, then that only hurts yourself and everybody else. So it's in everyone's interest to find, you know, the governance to organize ourselves as this continues to emerge.

Kevin Fong: That's it for this episode. My thanks to Mike Greenley, Carissa Bryce Christensen and Martin Sweeting for their insights. From GZERO Media this is Next Giant Leap made in partnership with MDA. I'm Kevin Fong. To hear the whole series, check out the GZERO World Podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts.

Previous Page


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter