Science

Internet: four questions about satellite constellations

Published on July 26, 2022, 04:10 PMUpdated July 26, 2022 5:31 pm.

Together they will try to become a major player in space telecommunications. French satellite operator Eutelsat has confirmed that it has entered into talks with Britain’s OneWeb, a constellation of more than 450 satellites orbiting the planet. The news did not please investors who are worried about the profitability of the project. On the day of the announcement, Eutelsat’s shares listed on Euronext lost nearly 18% and are down 16% as of Tuesday afternoon.

While mega-constellations have flourished across the Atlantic in recent years, the European Union also wants to have a champion in the sector. In fact, issues related to satellite constellations are central to communications and security, and hence sovereignty.

1. What are satellite constellations used for?

A satellite constellation is a collection of several hundred small artificial satellites placed into orbit in space. A complete network between all sites allows, in particular, to distribute broadband Internet almost everywhere on the surface of the planet, including in white areas where network access can be very difficult, such as at sea or in the mountains. . It also allows you to provide positional data that can be used for maritime navigation or in armies.

2. How do they work?

The principle of these constellations is based on many satellites located relatively close to the Earth, about 1000 kilometers. This is much closer than the relatively few geostationary satellites that cover the entire planet and are at a distance of more than 30,000 kilometers.

In particular, the satellites communicate with gateway stations on Earth that distribute the connection, as well as directly with user terminals, ie mobile phones. The fact that there are so many satellites provides a strong coverage of the planet, and their proximity provides great speed for surfing the Internet.

3. Who are the main players in this sector?

In recent years, satellite constellations have whetted the appetite of major international groups to meet ever-increasing demands for internet connectivity. South African billionaire Elon Musk launched the first mini-satellites in the Starlink galaxy from Space X in 2019. Today, there are about 3,000 Starlink devices orbiting the Earth, and in the long term, their number will reach 40,000.

Another big project, still American, is Amazon. Jeff Bezos launched Project Kuiper last April in partnership with Arianespace and Blue Origin. The goal is to eventually launch over 3,000 satellites.

The Chinese government also has its own large-scale project. Last year, it announced a goal to put 13,000 satellites into orbit to develop the country’s internet network.

The British group OneWeb is already one of the major players in this market, with more than 400 active satellites already. Eutelsat launched a satellite constellation project in 2019, but it has been delayed. Hence the relevance of the alliance of the two companies.

4. How does Europe position itself?

The issue of the space sovereignty of the European Union has been raised several times, for example, in February last year by Emmanuel Macron. The European states have agreed to finance a cross-cutting project to form a constellation of European satellites with a funding volume of 2.4 billion euros. But the initiative still needs to be approved by the union parliament.

The European project has not yet chosen a company capable of supporting it. And the merger between France’s Eutelsat and Britain’s OneWeb doesn’t necessarily make the new group a favorite in tenders.

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