The Urban Orbit
“We have touchdown.” 2019 accelerates an era in which space technology has been evolving. But something else is aloft. Space tech is taking off. Satellite technology has been advancing for many years. But I’m seeing a shift from what we might express as ‘mission-control space’ to a wide expanse of innovation and maturity. I’m not just alluding to SpaceX. What Elon Musk has been able to demonstrate is that the private sector can take the baton from NASA. Watching the failures and successes of SpaceX reminds us that industry is hard at work bringing humanity closer to our atmospheric space and nearby planets. But there are dozens of other startups that are charting a course in space, creating a new space-tech dynamic and the realization that space is just not that far out anymore.
The Man-Made Constellations of LEO
There are many areas of space-tech that already play a role in our lives. GPS-enabling, communicating, mapping, spying, scientifically observing are just a few of these. Our orbital space, which surrounds earth from 20,000-25,000 miles above, is fast becoming a landscape of manmade devices. But if that entire space were an ocean, the lowest orbits would represent the ports and harbors where most of the ships were gathering. In space terms, this area is known as Low Earth orbit (LEO) and represents space roughly up through 1200 miles above us, although many satellites currently occupy far lower heights and will continue to be launched in lower orbits than LEO’s outer reach. It is here that satellites can deliver continuous, low latency communications and more often than not, the satellites in this region are far smaller and less expensive that the ones farther out and fixed to earth’s orbit (geosynchronous). It is also here that we see a permanent connection forming between our terrestrial world and the space above.
In loose terms there are about 1000 LEO satellites orbiting earth today. According to sources that I’ve spoken to in the industry, this number is expected to multiply by eight over the next several years. If we go out a decade the number might even be 12,000; as a matter of fact SpaceX alone has been approved to launch this number (https://phys.org/news/2018-11-spacex-satellites-orbit.html). 8,000 – 12,000 satellites means that the analogous port will be busy and there will need to be coordination. This vast increase in devices doesn’t just represent more satellites. We’re witnessing a bit of sci-fi come to life and we should appreciate what’s about to happen. The quantum leap in space from where we are today comes in two cosmic flavors:
Space is the Network
Some of the notable names in the space business, Iridium, Globalstar and others were the early pioneers in delivering voice and data services from above. They provided dedicated satellite networks often used by businesses. The hundreds of terrestrial telecom networks worldwide, however, cannot rely on satellites because the deployments and reliable and economical constellations to support land-based service providers haven’t yet commercially launched. This is unfortunate because space is not encumbered by the hills and valleys that disturb earth-bound telecom connectivity and are not restricted by geopolitics and the natural obstacles, such as weather, that disrupt terrestrial installations.
What we’re about to see is an entirely new reliance on space to provide us with connectivity to every human, anywhere, anytime. We will reach a point in which space is the network. Take Sky and Space Global (SAS), a satellite company leading the race to provide an extension to service providers in underserved regions of the world to reach all regions, especially those that until now have been unreachable due to landscape, politics or cost.
Satellite technology and complex, reliable and compact onboard electronics were inhibitors to a reliable and cost-effective constellation. What SAS has done is to develop satellites that are inexpensive enough to make a large constellation economical in a form factor no bigger that a shoebox, called nano-satellites. SAS also created the onboard connectivity and reliability to give service providers in underserved regions of Earth the first tangible opportunity to extend their services – reliably, without much increase in subscriber fees, some unwieldy mobile device or replacing their existing infrastructure. In other words, space in the next telecom network. In fact, SAS satellites can actually be considered flying smart-routers. SAS is the first satellite company to have tested a small constellation of nano-satellites to connect to land networks and they are beginning the rollout of their commercial satellite network this year.
Many in the space industry foresee not just an extension of terrestrial networks in space but a full-on replacement, although in this case a forklift approach won’t be necessary. Some say that space will be focus of future telecom networks. If we’re seeing 5G networks extended into space, there’d be no reason to expect any less from 6G. And although it may be a bit premature to delve into 6G when 5G is just beginning deployment, there’s no reason that 6G should remain on earth. 6G will likely be a completely space-based technology.
As space becomes commonplace for communications and other manmade devices, it will lose some of its wonder and mystique and become technology’s extension from earth. As this happens another fascinating disruption in the industry will occur, the second ‘cosmic flavor’ to which I earlier referred. I call this the Urban Orbit.
The Urban Orbit
As satellites become abundant, as we humans find ourselves fully reliant on them, and as a harmonious, safe, reliable space-based ecosystem of devices takes shape, we will find ourselves observing the formation of an entire infrastructure in space. Let’s analyze the logic. Thousands of satellites will need maintenance. They’ll need space traffic laws and policies to avoid accidents. They’ll need parts, which means a place to store the parts and a way to get them to satellites and install them – inexpensively. That will create a space-based supply chain. See where I’m going. It begins to look like a city in space. The Urban Orbit.
This isn’t science fiction, not at all. Hardware and software protocols are being proposed now that will standardize the supply chain in space. Consider satellite refueling valves, standard replacement parts, and orbit modification connection points (grapples) much in the same way that machines here on earth have been standardized for easy and cost-effective maintenance You won’t have to stretch the imagination to see satellites roaming the orbital highways, repair shops, factories, autonomous vehicles traveling about, police stations and government offices all in space a few hundred miles above us. It’s astonishing how fast we will have gone from historical evolution in space to this urban orbital revolution.
The danger that I foresee mimics the same that has happened here on earth. With resources and assets in space, companies and countries will want to ensure that they’re protected. They’ll want the best locations, easiest access, whatever it takes to be competitive whether we’re talking commercial applications or military preparedness. This means the likelihood of having armed bases in space, and robotic space law enforcement to police the urban orbit.
Urban environments come with crime, pollution, politics, laws and regulations, legislation protecting a variety of people and places, traffic, taxes and a need to live and work around millions of others. Space has every analogy. There will be spacecrime, pollution becomes space debris; politics quickly become geopolitical arenas in space; laws and regulations are needed to govern the digital lives in orbit (satellites, refueling stations etc.); legislation oversight and lifecycle management of satellites and their support devices emerges; space traffic is already a factor and it will get plenty worse; taxes, well, will still be taxes; and a need to subsist with a very crowded international urban orbit will be critical to a complex region of our expanded Earth territory. I didn’t think that I’d witness Star Wars in my lifetime and, although it’s not quite in a galaxy far far away, it’s the beginning of a brave new world.