When you think of telecommunications, you usually look at the sky, but the reality is that to see the nervous system of the Internet you have to look down. 98% of the network’s traffic goes by submarine cables that run along the ocean floor and that when they touch land they branch into fiber cobwebs. It is cheaper for companies like Google to run a cable from New York to Bilbao than to put a satellite in orbit. At least until now, since a new generation of minisatellites aspires to reformulate the sector and gain prominence in digital connections.
OPINION | The new frontier of telecommunications: space
The key will be a large reduction in launch costs. The new devices are smaller and use lower orbits than traditional ones. If these usually weigh between 500 kilos and two or three tons and use geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers from the Earth, the new generation moves below 300 kilos (with many projects within the field of nanosatellites of less than 10 kilos) and it will orbit about 500 kilometers from the surface. In return, many more will be used, with constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites for each service.
The digital industry expects that the Internet of things, 5G and digital connections through space will generate a demand that will explode this market: from 315 million euros invoiced in 2020 to close to a trillion euros in 2040.
The Government has already pre-approved more than 80 projects to operate small satellites in the Spanish market, informs this medium the Secretary of State for Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructures. Seven of them have also received a green light from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This body, dependent on the United Nations, is in charge of ultimately approving this type of launch so that there is international coordination and the new satellites do not interfere with other services.
“The new space”
The mini-satellite boom, together with the large investment that private companies are making to promote space tourism, has coined a commercial name for this sector: the “new space” (or ‘New Space’, in its most common Anglo-Saxon term) . Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are the two proper names in the two camps. In the field of satellites, their companies are Starlink and Kuiper, respectively. The first already has 1,300 minisatellites in orbit. The second is more delayed, although it is authorized to launch 3,236.
Europe has once again lagged behind in the race, although it has launched programs to shorten the gap and wants its companies to position themselves in this market. Spain, which has dedicated € 4 billion from the coronavirus recovery fund to connectivity, intends to take advantage of it.
“Spain cannot be left behind in the development of the ‘New Space’ economy,” explains Roberto Sánchez, Secretary of State for Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructures, in a rostrum at elDiario.es. “Beyond the news about space tourism, there is an area of emerging scientific innovation and progress, with great potential to contribute to more sustainable growth,” he says.
Internet of things, Spain emptied and 5G
Of the seven definitive authorizations from the ITU to the more than 80 projects pre-approved by the Government, five are for Hispasat, one for Sateliot and another for Hisdesat. The latter (30% owned by the State) is preparing the new Ingenio project, the Spanish satellite that was damaged in 2020.
Hispasat and Sateliot have projects to improve the connection in emptied Spain, as well as to connect Internet of Things devices through 5G. The first is the main Spanish satellite company and the fourth operator in Latin America. It operates several satellites in geostationary orbit. Those 35,790 kilometers above the Earth are ideal for broadcasting audiovisual content, but not for the new generation of digital connections. “The main difference between geostationary and low orbits is latency,” explains Miguel Ángel Panduro, CEO of Hispasat.
“It is a physical matter. The information takes half a second to go and return to a satellite in geostationary orbit. There are some services that cannot allow this delay, such as online video games or financial services. There are certain applications where latency is essential and there satellites in low orbits have the virtue of being able to provide universal coverage with very little latency if they are well designed “, Panduro details.
The geostationary orbit is so named because it allows the devices to remain suspended constantly on a point on Earth, since they rotate at the same speed as the planet. A single satellite can serve very large areas. However, at lower altitudes, satellites pass very fast across the Earth’s surface. This means that in order to be effective, a large number of them have to be launched, what the sector calls constellations.
“Now what is intended is that instead of launching a satellite worth 500 million, 1,000 are launched worth half a million,” exemplifies the CEO of Hispasat. “Accessing space is going to be easier. The New Space is going to make a certain industry less specialized and that it will be able to take more risks. Why? Because there will be many more launches, much more frequent and that will to allow the luxury of being able to have failures, something that did not happen before. ”
The fear of the expert is that this ease of access leads to not having space for everyone and the market is oversized. “It is true that space is back in fashion, but I am concerned that a bubble is setting in,” warns Panduro.
Space debris and sky pollution
The main consequence of the development of the “new space” is that objects in orbit will grow at a time when a viable solution to this problem has not yet been developed. According to the European Space Agency, there are currently about 26,000 artificial objects orbiting the planet, but only about 2,800 are operational.
The ITU recommendation for satellites in geostationary orbits is to reserve the last part of the fuel to launch them into deep space. The plan with nanosatellites, which have a lifespan of seven to ten years, is for them to fall into denser layers of the atmosphere and disintegrate.
The multiplication of objects in the sky has also provoked the complaint of astronomers. According to a recent study published by the Royal Astronomical Society, the accumulation of satellites in use, deactivated ones and space junk can cause the brightness of the night sky increases by 10%. The increase would exceed the limit of what astronomers consider a clear sky for space observation.