Developments in LEO satellite constellations will enable faster communications with higher bandwidth and lower latency for maritime applications
At least four low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations are in development, three backed by the world’s richest billionaires, to provide faster communications to remote locations on land and at sea.
Two are currently under construction and two more are at the planning stage. These constellations will deliver higher bandwidth with lower latency than existing geostationary satellite constellations and L-band networks.
OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink constellations are being constructed with hundreds of LEO satellites either in orbit or set for launch this year. Added to these are Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Telesat’s Lightspeed constellation.
Canada-headquartered Telesat ordered satellites for its constellation in February 2021, officially launching its project to deliver dynamic LEO broadband services from 2023.
Telespazio affiliate Thales Alenia Space was contracted to manufacture the Lightspeed constellation. This will initially comprise 298 satellites, integrated with an advanced ground network. Thales Alenia has committed manufacturing capacity for this constellation and collaborated with Telesat on Lightspeed’s design.
Telesat says Lightspeed was optimised for the broadband connectivity requirements of fixed and mobile network operators in maritime, aviation, enterprise and governments.
The constellation will operate under Telesat’s global Ka-band priority spectrum rights with the first Lightspeed satellites expected to be launched in around two years. After they are tested during H1 2023, commercial services could begin in H2 2023.
“Lightspeed, as a fully integrated global communications network, will revolutionise satellite-delivered broadband and give Telesat a decisive competitive edge in this high-growth market,” says Telesat president and chief executive Dan Goldberg.
“Lightspeed exploits the latest advances in space-based data processing, laser communications, digital antenna technology and machine learning.”
He promises Lightspeed will provide fibre-like connectivity and eliminate hurdles telecommunications service providers face when incorporating satellite into their networks. It has been designed for bandwidth-intensive applications and cloud-based network connectivity.
Lightspeed satellites will have phased array antennas to create around 135,000 beams to dynamically focus multiple Gbps of capacity for in-demand hotspots such as major ports.
In an industry first, there will be almost 1,200 high-capacity optical links, four on each satellite, to create a flexible and secure space-based IP network, transferring data at the speed of light between satellites.
Satellites will process data for full digital modulation and demodulation and improved link performance, eliminating gateway hops for fast and secure end-to-end data delivery.
Telesat will commission satellites in both polar and inclined orbital planes. It is still working on securing finance to fund the development of this network.
In January 2021, OneWeb raised US$1.4Bn to complete its initial LEO constellation. This came after OneWeb was rescued from administrators in Q4 2020 by the UK Government and Bharti Global, which enabled OneWeb to restart launches and continue to build its groundstation network and user terminal development.
OneWeb secured funding from SoftBank Group and Hughes Network Systems to enable the manufacture, launch and commissioning of the first 648 satellites in the constellation by the end of 2022. So far, 110 satellites are in operation including 36 launched in December 2020. Airbus is building more satellites at an assembly plant in Florida, USA.
OneWeb executive chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal says SoftBank and Hughes shared its vision for the future of satellite communications. “Their commitment allows us to capitalise on the significant growth opportunity ahead as we gain experience and capabilities to deliver a unique LEO network,” he says.
Hughes, a subsidiary of satellite operator EchoStar, is an ecosystem partner, developing ground network technology for OneWeb.
Prior to securing the finance, OneWeb reduced its investment commitments and constellation size expectations. It lowered its anticipated constellation network to around 7,000 satellites from the 48,000 proposed in 2019. This recognises requirements from investors for deploying a cost-effective satellite network to deliver global broadband.
OneWeb intends to launch regional commercial services later in 2021 aided by Intellian, which is developing and manufacturing a new series of terminals for maritime and enterprise markets. These terminals will use OneWeb’s Ku-band coverage initially over the UK, Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland and the Arctic seas. OneWeb expects to offer a global LEO low-latency service from 2022.
Elon Musk’s Starlink LEO constellation has already started regional service testing for satellite-based internet services in remote areas of North America and the UK.
Mr Musk’s SpaceX has launched more than 800 of these satellites into orbit. Starlink aims to have 1,440 satellites in orbit, supported by ground stations, by the end of 2021. There are plans to have around 12,000 in the constellation by 2026.
During beta testing, users can expect data speeds to vary from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps and latency from 20-40 ms in most locations. Starlink will continue to launch more satellites and install additional ground stations to improve data speeds, latency and uptime.
Not to be outdone, Amazon is planning its own LEO constellation under Project Kuiper. This will operate in Ka-band with an initial constellation of 3,236 satellites.
Amazon has developed a terminal for terrestrial services. This is a phased array antenna for high-speed, low-latency broadband in a form factor smaller and lighter than parabolic antennas. Its prototype has demonstrated connectivity up to 400 Mbps.
Ka-band requires more physical separation between transmit and receive antennas to cover its wide frequency range. Legacy Ka-band antennas place the transmit antenna and receive antenna next to one another, requiring a larger surface area and higher production costs.
Amazon’s phased array antenna uses tiny antenna element structures to overlay one over the other. This reduces the size and weight of the entire terminal. Its design uses a combination of digital and analogue components to electronically steer Ka-band beams toward satellites passing overhead.
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