Proliferated Commercial Satellite Constellations: Implications for National Security
By Matthew A. Hallex and Travis S. Cottom Joint Force Quarterly 97
Matthew A. Hallex is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Travis S. Cottom is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses.
The falling costs of space launch and the increasing capabilities of small satellites have enabled the emergence of radically new space architectures—proliferated constellations made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of satellites in low orbits. Commercial space actors—from tiny startups to companies backed by billions of dollars of private investment—are pursuing these new architectures to disrupt traditional business models for commercial Earth observation and satellite communications. The success of these endeavors will result in new space-based services, including global broadband Internet coverage broadcast from orbit and high-revisit overhead imagery of much of the Earth’s surface.
The effects of proliferated constellations will not be confined to the commercial sector. The exponential increase in the number of satellites on orbit will shape the future military operating environment in space. The increase in the availability of satellite imagery and communications bandwidth on the open market will also affect the operating environment in the ground, maritime, and air domains, offering new capabilities that can address hard problems facing the U.S. military, such as tracking mobile targets, operating in the Arctic, or providing resilient space support in the face of growing counterspace threats. These trends will also create new challenges as adversaries ranging from Great Power competitors to hostile nonstate actors gain cheap access to space capabilities and the emergence of space-based Internet reshapes the cyber battlespace.
This article discusses some of the proposed commercial proliferated constellations being developed in the United States and abroad and explores the potential effects of proliferated constellations on the space, terrestrial, and cyber domains. It identifies the multidomain challenges and opportunities these trends create for the warfighter and proposes steps that the Department of Defense (DOD) and the broader national security community can take to prepare.
Satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) have traditionally provided satellite communications where satellites can broadcast to large areas of the Earth. These satellites have provided low data rates and relatively high latency communications, good enough for niche applications but not competitive with fiber optics and other terrestrial alternatives for broadband communications.
Proliferated communications constellations, often referred to as mega-constellations because of their size, are in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and aim to provide high bandwidth, low latency communications competitive with terrestrial broadband communications. This will not only allow satellite communications to compete for long-distance backhaul and mobile users but also address underserved populations.
Much of the developing world lacks access to terrestrial broadband infrastructure, and 57 percent of the global population does not have access to the Internet.3 Mega-constellations could allow the developing world to skip laying costly fiber-optic cable in the same way the proliferation of cellular phone technology provided communications without the need to build phone lines in the developing world. LEO-proliferated constellations will also be able to provide communications to high-latitude populations in Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia, which are poorly served by terrestrial communications infrastructure and outside the coverage of GEO communications satellites.4
OneWeb and SpaceX are pursuing the most ambitious proposals for LEO communications proliferated constellations (see table 1). OneWeb has raised more than $1.7 billion in investments to build a first-generation constellation of 648 satellites, expected to enter commercial service by 2020, and plans to expand the constellation with 2,000 satellites in the future.5
Plans for SpaceX’s Starlink proliferated constellation are even more ambitious. The first generation of Starlink is planned to consist of more than 4,000 satellites, and SpaceX has secured U.S. Government approval for a final constellation of almost 12,000 satellites.6
Other proliferated constellation proposals have come from established companies such as Boeing and Canada’s Telesat, as well as smaller startups like Kepler Communications and LeoSat.7 While these are only nascent projects, the potential for large quantities of communications bandwidth entering the market from LEO communications mega-constellations, as well as smaller numbers of high-throughput GEO communications satellites, have led traditional satellite communications providers to delay purchasing new and replacement communications satellites that could struggle to compete in the future business environment.
The Earth observation market has already moved toward commercial constellations of large numbers of small satellites. While these constellations are smaller than planned communications mega-constellations, ranging from dozens to hundreds of satellites, this disaggregation of commercial space capability has increased access to Earth observation capabilities useful for national security applications.
The most mature of the disaggregated Earth observation constellations are those operated by Planet and Spire Global. By the end of 2017, Planet operated a constellation of 140 Dove imagery CubeSats, 5 RapidEye medium-resolution, and 13 higher resolution SkySat satellites that can image Earth’s entire landmass daily.8 In July 2018, Spire operated 61 of its Lemur satellites (out of a planned 125) that track the Automatic Identification System (AIS) beacons of ships that collect weather data by monitoring the radio occupation of GPS signals.9
Traditional remote-sensing providers such as Digital Globe and other larger, established companies including Canon, the Japanese manufacturer of cameras and other imagery products, are planning disaggregated imagery constellations (see table 2). Additional startup companies are also aiming to join the ranks of the more mature Earth observation constellations offering optical imagery, high-revisit, all weather, and nighttime Synthetic Aperture Radar,10 as well as radio signal collection satellites that can geolocate signals emissions—essentially offering commercial electronic intelligence capabilities that can support transportation and logistics, emergency search and rescue, or spectrum mapping in addition to its existing applications for national security and other government purposes.11
The U.S. Government has been the largest and most stable customer for commercial satellite imagery, including resources from new imagery proliferated constellations. For instance, a significant share of Planet’s growth has been through multiple contracts with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.12 Commercial Earth observation companies, however, are seeking to diversify their customer base and reach new markets—to rely less on U.S. Government spending and, consequently, to potentially reduce its sway over commercial actors. With lower prices and increasingly on-demand imagery services, proliferated constellation companies are trying to focus on new, nontraditional satellite imagery markets: industrial monitoring, agriculture, utilities, marine transportation analytics, insurance, resource management, business intelligence, and other data-driven, decisionmaking practices.13 This broader range of services will help drive market expansion, and the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute projects the overall commercial small satellite imaging market will grow from $15 million in 2015 to $164 million in 2020.14
More on the topic: Commercial Satellite Boom Poses NatSec Risks: IDA