Are LEO satellites approaching a breaking point for the Pentagon?

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Broadband provided by low earth orbit satellites could soon be cheaper than fiber networks, said Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a transformation that would be a boon to the Pentagon’s efforts to put its own assets in LEO constellations for missile warning capabilities, communications and more.

The ongoing miniaturization of satellites along with developments in rocket technology are lowering costs of building and launching large constellations, making them increasingly attractive to the commercial sector, he said.

“Satellites are becoming smaller, so miniaturization is a key piece of what’s happening in the satellite sector,” said Selva during a June 28 conversation at the Brookings Institute. “But it’s not just miniaturization. It’s integration, so the capacity to make a small satellite that will do multiple things. Similarly, if you want to specialize that same satellite, the integration of sensors into storage and transmission methodologies that allow you to build a much more elegant sensor on a smaller platform that demands less power. And so the value of each pound you put in space is rising. So the value of each satellite is going up.

“If you can imagine in your mind’s eye launching a school bus-sized satellite or a collection of beer keg-sized satellites, that’s an entirely different architecture. So the value per pound of what’s going into space has gone way up,” said Selva.

Multiple companies have filed plans to launch constellations with hundreds of satellites to provide commercial broadband services. SpaceX, for instance, launched 60 small satellites into LEO in May as part of Starlink, a constellation of thousands of satellites capable of providing global broadband. Facebook, OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon are all pursuing similar projects.

Selva’s comments seem to line up with the aspirations of DARPA’s Blackjack program. Blackjack envisions about 20 small satellites placed within a commercial constellation, with each satellite hosting multiple Department of Defense payloads, from missile warning to communications systems. In doing so, Blackjack takes advantage of both miniaturization and integration.

The Space Development Agency, a new organization created to develop how the Pentagon will organize its assets in space, appears to support the Blackjack vision. In its brief existence, the SDA has released a notional space architecture that would build on Blackjack, using multiple LEO constellations to host DoD payloads and replace larger single-purpose satellites.

The other development Selva credits with making LEO constellations more affordable is rocket technology.

“We’re turning a corner in two ways in the development of new rocket technologies. One is simplicity. So imagine a 3-D printed, disposable rocket that has no moving parts. Those actually exist,” said Selva. “They’re capable of launching a set of satellites, a collection of about 1,500 kg of beer keg-sized satellites, every six days.”

On the other end of the spectrum, said Selva, are companies using autonomous landing technology to create reusable rockets. Both SpaceX and Blue Origen have successfully landed reusable rockets.

“The fact that we don’t have to replace all that hardware actually gives you a model that says over time, you reduce the price per pound of quality that you put into orbit. And that makes possible conversations like broadly distributed low earth orbit constellations that can provide broadband internet on a global scale. People imagined that in the late ’90s, but because it was so expensive to put a satellite on orbit fiber killed the satellite constellations.”

The replacement of fiber networks with satellite broadband could become a reality if satellites continue trending towards affordability.

“We may be approaching a break point in the cost of the technologies that says proliferating low earth orbit constellation of broadband internet satellites will be much more useful that a web of fiber that circles the earth,” said Selva. “I’m not suggesting for the moment that that’s an absolute, but when you get to that break point you’re in a different business model.”

Published: 2019-07-17 20:13:35