Here Comes the Next Satellite Constellation. OneWeb Launches 34 Satellites on Thursday

SpaceX has been garnering all the headlines when it comes to satellite constellations. Their Starlink system will eventually have thousands of tiny satellites working together to provide internet access, though only 242 of them have been deployed so far. But now another company is getting on the action: OneWeb.

On Thursday February 6th, OneWeb will launch 34 satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Soyuz launch vehicle, operated by Arianespace. These satellites will join the six already in orbit as the first phase of their constellation, which will eventually be 648 satellites. Eventually, OneWeb intends to have as many as 5,000 satellites in orbit.

In a press release OneWeb said, “Each satellite forms an integral part of the high-speed global satellite broadband network and together will activate OneWeb’s first customer demos by the end of 2020 to provide full commercial global services for sectors such as maritime, aviation, government and enterprise in 2021.”

The satellite dispenser at Baikonur Cosmodrome, January 2020. <Click to Enlarge> Image Credit: OneWeb

After launch, the satellites will be in a 450 km altitude polar orbit. But eventually they’ll rise to their 1200 km operational orbit. Each of the satellites is about the size of a refrigerator, and once the system is deployed, according to OneWeb, it will “enable user terminals capable of offering 3G, LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi coverage, providing high-speed access around the world ? by air, sea and land.”

By 2021, the company says they’ll provide global, 24-hour coverage. They’ll do this by partnering with telecommunications companies, and selling their user terminals to customers.

Other companies are making noise about launching their own satellite constellations. Amazon, Telesat, LeoSat, and maybe even Facebook all have plans of their own. Eventually, there could be tens of thousands of these satellites in orbit. According to OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel, only three or four companies are likely to make it to the operational stage, and that will create competition, keeping prices lower for consumers.

An infographic on OneWeb's satellite constellation. Image Credit: OneWeb.
An infographic on OneWeb’s satellite constellation. Image Credit: OneWeb.

But as SpaceX’s StarLink system has shown, there’s a downside to all of this internet access: light pollution.

When SpaceX launched their first 60 satellites in May 2019, people saw them streaking through the sky. This led to much discussion—and debate—about how much light pollution all these thousands of satellites will cause, and if there’ll be an adverse effect on astronomy.

Still image from Hadley’s simulation of the Starlink satellite constellation. Credit: Mark Hadley

The astronomy community expressed concern that eventually the number of satellites will outnumber the visible stars in the sky. They also say that the radio and visible light brightness of the satellites will impair astronomical observations. The other issue particular to StarLink is that those satellites can autonomously change orbit when required, so it’s difficult to schedule observing times to avoid them.

Elon Musk said there’s nothing to worry about, especially when you consider the upside.

OneWeb says their satellites will be at a much higher altitude than StarLink’s, and so they shouldn’t be a problem. They shouldn’t even be visible to the naked eye. But is that enough to satisfy concerned astronomers?

OneWeb has tried to get in front of this issue by talking with the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

In June 2019, the AAS issued a statement on Starlink, and future satellite constellations. Here’s part of it:

“SpaceX had suggested that the satellites would be visible just barely, if at all. But for a few days after launch the Starlink constellation shone as brightly as many astronomical constellations, and SpaceX intends to launch thousands more such spacecraft as part of an effort to provide internet service to everyone in the world. ‘I think it’s commendable and very impressive engineering to spread the information and opportunities made possible by internet access,’ says Megan Donahue (Michigan State University), President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), ‘but I, like many astronomers, am very worried about the future of these new bright satellites.’ The Starlink satellites and similar swarms being developed by other companies could eventually outnumber the stars visible in our night sky.”

Their statement contained this image from Victoria Girgis at the Lowell Observatory.

An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA on the night of Saturday 25 May 2019. The diagonal lines running across the image are trails of reflected light left by more than 25 of the 60 recently launched Starlink satellites as they passed through the telescope’s field of view. Although this image serves as an illustration of the impact of reflections from satellite constellations, please note that the density of these satellites is significantly higher in the days after launch (as seen here) and also that the satellites will diminish in brightness as they reach their final orbital altitude. Image Credit: Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory
An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA on the night of Saturday 25 May 2019. The diagonal lines running across the image are trails of reflected light left by more than 25 of the 60 recently launched Starlink satellites as they passed through the telescope’s field of view. Although this image serves as an illustration of the impact of reflections from satellite constellations, please note that the density of these satellites is significantly higher in the days after launch (as seen here) and also that the satellites will diminish in brightness as they reach their final orbital altitude. Image Credit: Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

But as the caption says, this image is from shortly after launch. Starlink satellites eventually disperse and move to higher orbits, so their brightness will diminish and they won’t be clustered together.

The AAS intends to try to work with satellite constellation providers to minimize the adverse affects of the satellites. According to the AAS, “impacts could include significant disruption of optical and near-infrared observations by direct detection of satellites in reflected and emitted light; contamination of radio astronomical observations by electromagnetic radiation in satellite communication bands; and collision with space-based observatories.”

The Royal Astronomical Society also released a statement outlining their concerns: “Increasing the number of satellites so significantly presents a challenge to ground-based astronomy. The deployed networks could make it much harder to obtain images of the sky without the streaks associated with satellites, and thus compromise astronomical research.”

It seems like everyone’s playing nicely when it comes to these satellite constellations. Their potential to provide quality internet access to any location in the world is hard to ignore.

In a June 8th, 2019 statement, AAS President Megan Donohue said, “I’m looking forward to productive conversations between astronomers and SpaceX. I fully expect that we will come up with creative solutions that can serve as models for other companies to follow.”

The sun sets on Mauna Kea as the twin Kecks prepare for observing. Will satellite constellations affect the observing activities of telescopes like these? Credit: Laurie Hatch/ W. M. Keck Observatory
The sun sets on Mauna Kea as the twin Kecks prepare for observing. Will satellite constellations affect the observing activities of telescopes like these? Credit: Laurie Hatch/ W. M. Keck Observatory

In an interview with ArsTechnica, OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel said, “I would love to be able to tell you that this is a non-issue for us, but we don’t know for sure,” he said. “What I can say is that we’re working to minimize the impact to astronomy and the night sky.”

Space is the new economic frontier, and companies like OneWeb are bound to seek out opportunities. Eventually, there will be more guidelines governing satellite constellations. Whether or not those guidelines will make everyone happy remains to be seen.

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