(ORDO NEWS) — In mid-February, the European Commission submitted a proposal to create a new large constellation of artificial satellites in addition to the two existing ones. To date, the European Union already uses the global navigation system Galileo and the Earth remote sensing system Copernicus.
Satellite constellations in low Earth orbit represent the most viable and promising business. Customers are willing to pay for access to satellite Internet, especially in hard-to-reach places where providers have not yet reached their fiber optic cables. Due to the low orbit, such a constellation requires quite a lot of small satellites, thereby providing a large number of orders for spacecraft manufacturers and launch organizers.
Currently, the world leader in the implementation of these processes is SpaceX. The Starlink project already has more than 2,000 spacecraft in orbit, and more than 12,000 more are planned to be launched.
According to some reports, the size of the constellations can be increased to 42,000 vehicles altogether. As of January 2022, the company announced the provision of services to 145,000 active users (albeit in a beta test format), and in February, SpaceX founder Elon Musk reported 250,000 sold terminals.
Starlink’s closest competitor is OneWeb, founded by a group of investors. Its plans are much more modest – only 648 spacecraft in the constellation, of which more than 400 have already been put into orbit and are operating. At the same time, OneWeb has not yet shown its terminals and has not begun to conduct open beta testing of services.
This list also includes Amazon Kuiper with more than 2,000 planned satellites (but they have not even presented devices yet), as well as local projects: China, Russia (part of the Sphere project) and India are actively creating a similar constellation of satellites, which recently refused to cooperate with Starlink and place ground terminals on its territory.
There are also very small but already quite stable private players, such as O3b, which provides satellite Internet access mainly for cruise ships and small islands in the tropics.
In Europe, the problem of getting a cable with the Internet to end users is not as acute as in Russia, the USA or on a cruise ship. With the funds that the EU plans to spend on creating its own constellation of spacecraft – € 6 billion, it would be possible to provide wired Internet to all those in need with a margin. Then why did the Europeans think about creating a third constellation?
Not only the Internet
Such projects are not only the final business for the sale of communication services to end users. For many of their organizers, the process of creation is much more important than the final results.
The same Starlink was largely created to load SpaceX’s space capacities with constant internal orders after Elon Musk collected almost all orders from the commercial space market. Especially when it is possible to obtain state funding, then such a project – the creation of a satellite constellation – becomes even more desirable.
It is very likely that this is exactly the case in Europe, since the main movers of the European satellite constellation are the large aerospace companies Airbus, Thales Alenia, Arian Space. It is very important for them to get contracts for the creation of such a project in order to load their production facilities with profitable orders for several years.
The same Airbus was engaged in the creation of spacecraft for OneWeb, and now switching to a similar order for the European Union is a profitable and convenient solution.
Therefore, despite the opposition of the supervisory authorities (the Supervisory Board of the EU Regulatory Commission twice rejected the proposal to create this grouping, only the third time it accepted it), the project is becoming more and more realistic.
The project is currently being considered as a public-private partnership. Of the €6 billion, the EU is expected to invest €2.4 billion (mainly through existing projects in the space and military industries). Another €1.6 billion will be allocated by EU member states. The remaining €2 billion is invested by private companies.
It looks quite natural that the constellation can be used not only for its intended purpose – providing Internet access to remote areas of Europe and Africa, but will also be able to solve some of the unsolved issues of the European military and governments, providing them with independent secure satellite communications with the possibility of quantum encryption.
Will the fittest survive?
At the same time, competition in the market for the provision of broadband satellite Internet access services will increase in the coming years. When SpaceX first created Starlink, it was assumed that the network could cover the entire planet and the service would be available to people from all over the world. Now it is becoming more and more clear that these were just dreams.
Large states with their own space program are not eager to give away the markets of their countries without a fight. The reasons for this, both financial and strategic, are the lack of control over SpaceX and its possible cooperation with the US military on the issue of data interception.
In this regard, I come to the conclusion that it is unlikely that any of the satellite providers will be able to win world domination. Rather, in the near future we will have several more local projects with overlapping functions.
Plans for the creation of a new constellation of satellites by the European Union just fit into this approach. As specified, this is only about 100 devices, for the creation and launch of which Europe will have enough capacity, it remains only to solve the problem with the terminals.
It is unlikely that the news about the creation of a new competitor will please SpaceX, which clearly considers the population of both Europe and Africa as potential customers. Moreover, there are already customers in European countries who use Starlink satellite Internet. Who wants to lose users? Now, Elon Musk will have to take into account the plans of the European Union.
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