Satellite operators criticize “extreme” megaconstellation filings

Telesat, which is planning a constellation of a few hundred satellites, is among the operators critical of filings for systems with tens to hundreds of thousands of satellites. Credit: Telesat

By Jeff Foust,
Published by SpaceNews, 14 December 2021

PARIS — Established satellite operators expressed their frustration at the wave of filings for enormous satellite constellations, arguing nations need to step forward and establish rules to curtail such systems.

The best known of such filings is one by the government of Rwanda with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in September, which proposed two constellations with a combined 327,230 satellites. Rwanda has launched to date a single satellite, a three-unit cubesat called RwaSat-1 in 2019.

Companies have also made filings for large constellations. Kepler, the Canadian company developing a relatively modest satellite constellation, filed through the German government a proposed system called Aether with nearly 115,000 satellites. The company said Nov. 18 that the figure includes all satellites with an Aether terminal installed, not just the company’s own satellites, but the total is far larger than all operational satellites in orbit today.

“My view is, this is what happens when there are no penalties for bad behavior, or behavior not entirely consistent with the way the industry has behaved up to a certain point in time,” said Steve Collar, chief executive of SES, during a Dec. 13 panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week. “As a result, we’ve got a whole bunch of exuberant filings, most of which won’t happen.”

“From an economic standpoint, an overcapacity standpoint, these extreme filings do not make any sense,” said Michel Azibert, deputy chief executive of Eutelsat. Systems already in active development by companies like Amazon, OneWeb, SpaceX and Telesat, along with high-throughput satellites in geostationary orbit, already provide far more capacity than projected demand, he argued. “If you start doubling or tripling the capacity, it doesn’t make any sense.”

The concern both raised is that some of these proposed constellations do attempt to at least start deployment. “We’re running the risk of having a totally congested space,” Azibert said. “The risks of collision are exponential.”

He was critical of both the ITU and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which recently accepted applications for a series of V-band constellations that included a proposal by Astra Space for a 13,600-satellite system. “I don’t see the ITU being extremely proactive on that. I see the FCC starting something like they are the world’s regulator on licensing spectrum in LEO and NGSO in general.”

“We should not be captured by the hype and say the more constellations the better for mankind, because it’s not true. It’s the contrary, in my opinion,” Azibert said.

Mark Dankberg, chairman of Viasat, said the issue needs to be taken up at the national level as proposed systems seek landing rights from national regulators. “Filings are becoming virtually irrelevant. Even getting a filing through the ITU doesn’t really mean anything. What’s going to become the big issue is getting landing rights,” he said. “That’s the area that we’ll start to see reactions where countries realize that granting landing rights to systems that are disproportionately occupying space is just not good for them.”

Dan Goldberg, president and chief executive of Telesat, said he shared those concerns even as Telesat develops its Lightspeed constellation. “The problem with our industry,” he said, “is that the ITU doesn’t have enforcement powers.”

He called for “key countries” in Europe, Asia and the Americas to work together on this issue. “The countries that are ultimately launching these seems to be a logical place for them to come together and introduce some rules that ensure that the risks that we’ve been talking about today are addressed and managed,” he said. “It won’t be easy but it’s got to be done.”

“The single biggest problem isn’t that the ITU doesn’t have enforcement powers. It’s that the ITU has zero regulations around orbital congestion,” Dankberg said. “All they’re dealing with is spectrum. Nobody anticipated an environment where there would be so many satellites that the physical congestion of orbits would be a dominant issue.”

“What happens if all of these constellations try to build? I think we’ll have an unsustainable situation very, very quickly,” Collar warned. “We probably won’t realize it until it’s too late. Now is the time for the industry to start getting a bit more responsible.”

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