Thus far, 2019 has been the year of telecommunications satellite constellations as two systems completed their deployment to become fully operational this year.
On 4 April, the last four of 20 satellites in the O3b Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) telecommunications constellation were successfully launched by Arianespace from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana (South America). This success follows that of another constellation, Iridium® NEXT, fully operational in low Earth orbit (LEO) since February after launching 75 of its 81 satellites over two years.
The very first telecommunications constellations, such as Iridium or Globalstar first generation, appeared on the space market more than 20 years ago. Since its pioneering days, Thales Alenia Space has built all the telecommunications constellations in orbit with a total of 125 satellites deployed as prime contractor for three different systems: Globalstar 2, O3b and Iridium® NEXT. Thales Alenia Space was also a major partner onboard Globalstar first generation, manufacturing 70% of the constellation.
Over the last 5 years, there was a real boom regarding new constellations projects for Low and Medium Earth Orbits and addressing communications as well as observation business models.
"The large-scale production of complex satellites – with embedded processors and active antennas – is something new, and it requires expertise right from component production through to satellite assembly." Denis Allard, Thales Alenia Space VP for Constellation Programs
For communications, constellations satisfy a unique combination of needs in terms of global coverage and low latency which leads the boom regarding constellations upcoming projects. These new constellations will complement geostationary communications offers. The increase in number, coupled with the satellites’ low orbit, significantly reduces signal latency, which is a key factor for some Internet services. These new projects rely on economies of scale in production as well.
Denis Allard, Thales Alenia Space VP for Constellation Programs, explains the challenges: “The large-scale production of complex satellites – with embedded processors and active antennas – is something new, and it requires expertise right from component production through to satellite assembly. But the industrial processes we were able to implement successfully for Iridium will serve as valuable experience for future satellite constellation programmes.”
The O3b constellation, owned by the satellite operator SES, has been deployed in a circular orbit along the equator at an altitude of 8,000 km in medium Earth orbit (MEO), offering even greater capacity, plus enhanced coverage, efficiency and reliability. These high-performance satellites aim to deliver communications services to telecom and mobile operators, Internet service providers, customers of mobile aeronautical and maritime services, government institutions and the energy sector.
As for Iridium® NEXT, it is a constellation of communications satellites in LEO, at an altitude of 780 km, comprising 66 operational satellites and nine in-orbit spare satellites. These satellites, each weighing 850 kg at launch, were dedicated to replace the initial Iridium constellation, which had reached its end of life.
Its robustness and sophisticated technologies make this complex system the only one of its kind capable of operating over oceans and poles. It also operates independently of ground infrastructures, thanks to inter-satellite links, to guarantee secure communications, protected against intrusion and piracy. In the event of natural disasters, such as typhoons, hurricanes and tsunamis, Iridium® NEXT can provide significant assistance by keeping vital communications links open.
"The industrial processes we were able to implement successfully for Iridium will serve as valuable experience for future satellite constellation programmes.” Denis Allard, Thales Alenia Space VP for Constellation Programs
Thales Alenia Space’s expertise in low- and medium-orbit telecoms satellites means that it is also fully equipped not only to address current challenges, but also to meet the needs of an emerging market New Space. This market aims to expand the space business activity with the arrival of new comers.
Thales Alenia Space is already working with a number of startups in the field. The company has partnered American startup Spaceflight Industries in a joint venture - Leostella LCC - to build BlackSky, a constellation of 60 optical high-resolution satellites offering high revisit, and France’s Nexeya to build Kineis, a constellation of 20 nanosatellites dedicated to the Internet of Things. In addition the Space Alliance (between Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio) recently acquired a stake in NorthStar Earth & Space Inc., an information services company from Montreal that is developing a sophisticated system for the surveillance of our environment and near space.