Welcome to the space jam: Canadian startup Kepler stirs debate with huge planned fleet of internet satellites

Kepler Communications Inc

By Sean Silcoff,
Published by The Globa and Mail, 10 December 2021

The Canadian company is jockeying with SpaceX, Amazon and Telesat for room in orbit for tens of thousands of new machines. Critics say the space race could come at a cost on Earth

A Canadian space startup has caused a global stir with a proposal that would see the skies filled with tens of thousands of communications satellites bearing its technology – 114,852 satellites to be exact.

Last month Kepler Communications Inc. applied to the International Telecommunications Union for permission to put a constellation of satellites into Earth’s lower orbit (LEO) – a band between 200 and 2,000 kilometres above the planet’s surface. It would comprise more than nine times the total number of satellites launched from Earth since the Russians sent up Sputnik in 1957, of which 7,630 are still in orbit, according to the European Space Agency.

News of Kepler’s filing with the United Nations regulatory body elicited a worried reaction from some space watchers. They have mounting concerns about the potential impacts of a growing number of planned LEO satellite launches, which they fear could clutter the view for casual stargazers and astronomers – and create chaos in the heavens from collisions that could damage functioning spacecraft, affect communications on Earth and even put lives at risk.

“Just how many satellites can we fill space with,” Christopher Johnson, a space law adviser with space sustainability NGO Secure World Foundation, tweeted in response to Kepler’s filing.

“This would increase the *ENTIRE* 2021 space population 34 times in a *busy* S-band region,” tweeted Chris Bridges, a lecturer at University of Surrey’s Space Centre in England. (An s-band is a satellite frequency band used by weather, ship and some communications satellites.) “And we thought Starlink was the problem,” tweeted Petr Bohacek, a space applications specialist at the HiLASE Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, referring to the fast-growing LEO satellite constellation operated by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Space X, as Mr. Musk’s company is known, is one of several other private companies looking to build the capacity to beam internet connectivity from space – particularly to rural and remote areas that are now underserved by current broadband providers; it plans to launch more than 40,000 satellites in the coming years.

Kepler’s plan may not actually involve as many satellites as its proposal suggests. In an interview, Kepler CEO and co-founder Mina Mitry said the six-year-old privately-held Toronto company only plans to launch 200 of its own small satellites to establish its internet-of-the-sky service called AEther. The rest of the six-figure sum of flying objects would actually be launched by its customers – such as Earth observation services, space tourism operators, space agencies and defence departments – which would affix a cellphone-sized 220-gram terminal provided by Kepler to their own satellites. The Kepler box would function like a SIM card and enable customer satellites to connect to the larger constellation “and any other space-borne assets” in LEO, via the always-on, always-available AEther network. Mr. Mitry said the 114,852 number is “based on feedback from customers … and best guesses” about what they plan to deploy in the future, although it could be less – “in the tens of thousands.”

Kepler, SpaceX and other players like Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Systems LLC and Canada’s Telesat Corp. are part of a second-generation space race that includes commercial space travel and Mars missions, and has driven record levels of private and public markets investment. Two Canadian space companies, MDA Ltd. and Telesat, have gone public this year and several startups based here have raised venture capital, including Kepler, which announced a US$60-million financing in June led by San Francisco’s Tribe Capital and Canaan Partners.

If the field of space companies seems crowded, just look up. Starlink last month surpassed 1,800 satellites in orbit with its latest launch and, so far, has approval to put another 10,000-plus into orbit from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The U.K.’s OneWeb as of September had launched nearly half its planned 648 LEO satellite fleet, and Amazon has said it plans to launch 3,236 satellites into LEO starting next year. In 2019 MIT Technology Review predicted the number of satellites orbiting the Earth could quintuple in a decade, and last year the Satellite Industry Association forecast there could be upwards of 107,000 LEO satellites by 2029 if all plans that had been unveiled then came to fruition.

That projection preceded news of Kepler’s proposal and other planned large-scale launches. Space News reported in April that China was moving ahead with plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO “mega-constellation.” And just days before the Kepler filing, Rwanda’s Space Agency filed a request with the ITU to launch 327,320 satellites into LEO, part of an ambitious plan by the country, which in 2019 launched its first satellite, to become a hub of Africa’s space industry. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that space entrepreneur Greg Wyler, a friend of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, was the mastermind of the country’s plans.

Whether the various plans fully come to fruition, the skies are bound to proliferate with machines, mostly to serve commercial purposes of delivering internet service to places that have been underserved by high speed options. “If the space economy goes in the direction it’s forecast to go in, I would not be surprised to see hundreds of thousands of objects or more using space,” said Mr. Mitry. “The intention for us always has been to become a space-faring civilization.”

Many space watchers, though, say there are several reasons to be concerned, because the extent to which so many orbiting objects could impact life on Earth and in space is uncertain. “It’s a trend we all in the space industry know is coming, but it’s still shocking to see those filings for 100,000-satellite constellations,” said Mr. Bohacek in an interview. “It just shows that the trend of growing satellite constellations is serious, and we need to find out better ways to mitigate all the risks associated with it. There is a problem coming in the future we don’t have a solution to yet.”

The first problem, they say, is something simple, but with an impact on all of the planet’s inhabitants: The pleasure of looking at the stars and planets. “If all these companies flung all these things into the sky the way they’re projecting, then it will be a very different night sky,” said Tony Beasley, director of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory in an interview.

While traditional geostationary satellites typically hover in relatively fixed positions 36,000 kilometers from Earth, LEO satellites are continuously orbiting the planet at much lower altitudes and therefore have more limited coverage and efficiency. But they are also much smaller, cheaper to make and get into orbit than geostationary satellites, so operators get over their limitations by launching “constellations” of them to cover desired areas.

Progress comes with a price, though, and “if you were to end up with more visible satellites than stars, that changes the experience of the night sky for everyone, and there are cultural connections we have to the night sky,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “There are even starting to be concerns of, ‘Well if you had enough satellites and they were bright enough, could it actually have biological effects on species that navigate with the night sky?’ We’re making a big change to the environment that isn’t yet fully understood.”

That’s a potential nuisance to the average person. It’s a whole other level of bother for astronomers, who have already complained satellites already inhibit their ability to view into space. “This will definitely change the astronomers’ view,” Mr. Bohacek said. “They’ll see these light lines all over the sky, and it’s going to make their life a lot more difficult.”

Mr. McDowell said astronomers “have already been alarmed … and now these filings [from Kepler and Rwanda] are upping the ante even more.” Starlink has responded to astronomer concerns, darkening satellites by adding visors to their satellites that block sunlight from hitting the brightest parts of the spacecraft and changing the way they fly so their knife edge faces the sun. The changes make its satellites “generally invisible to the naked eye within a week of launch,” Starlink says on its website.

An illustration released in 2010 by Australia's Electro Optic Systems shows accumulated space debris in low-Earth orbit. Fast-moving debris can be a destructive hazard to satellites or spacecraft.Electro Optic Systems/AFP via Getty Images
An illustration released in 2010 by Australia’s Electro Optic Systems shows accumulated space debris in low-Earth orbit. Fast-moving debris can be a destructive hazard to satellites or spacecraft.Electro Optic Systems/AFP via Getty Images

Another big concern is collisions. In addition to the working satellites in LEO, the European Space Agency estimates there are at least 36,500 pieces of debris that are 10 cm or wider. Imagine 36,500 softballs hurling around the planet at speeds of more than 27,000 kilometers an hour – several times faster than a speeding bullet – and some of those pieces are considerably larger. Even the smallest of them can do damage – to other satellites, to spacecraft carrying people, even to the International Space Station. In 2016, a piece of flying paint cracked a window on the station, and startup LeoLabs, Inc., which monitors the movement of space debris, reported two near-misses between orbiting objects in 2020.

Hugh Lewis, head of Astronautics Research Group at University of Southampton in the U.K., has said Starlink satellites alone are involved in about 1,600 close encounters between spacecraft each week, while Mr. McDowell said the space station has had to do about 30 maneuvers since 1999 to avoid collisions from debris. Daniel Oltrogge, founder and director of the Space Safety Coalition, said last year that by 2030 there could be 2.5 million “close calls” in the busiest orbital areas and more than 40 collisions annually.

The situation is complicated by the fact that when two items in orbit collide, they don’t stop, but instead smash into more fragments that continue on speedy and often new trajectories, creating even more collision hazards. The phenomenon is known as Kessler Syndrome, named after one of the researchers that identified the problem in 1978. For example, a collision between an Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian military satellite in 2009 created 1,000 pieces of debris at least 10 cm wide.

And as if there wasn’t already enough debris in space, every few years a government blows up a satellite, creating even more flying junk. China’s destruction of a defunct weather satellite in 2007 created more than 3,000 fragments now tracked by scientists, while researchers are still trying to get a handle on the number of bits generated last month when Russia blew up an inoperative satellite.

“The lower earth orbit is going to be so congested that the chances of a satellite getting hit will be so great nobody will want to insure them,” said John Crassidis, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at State University of New York in Buffalo. “It’s going to be so great it’s not worth the risk anymore.” Mr. McDowell added, “If you let that play out you lose trillions of dollars of expensive hardware in orbit and make space impossible to use. Why should people care? Because you use space everyday, even if you don’t’ realize it,” including receiving GPS and weather information from satellites.

Debris also does sometimes fall out of orbit and plummet to earth: In May, a Chinese booster rocket crashed into the Indian Ocean. Nobody was injured and the chance of being hit by falling space junk is low – but it remains a risk.

Meanwhile, the world’s countries have yet to launch a unified space traffic management system, and there is still no easy way to retrieve detritus from the skies. “Everyone has talked about [devising a global system] for years, we just haven’t found ways to deal with it,” said Mr. Bohaeck. “I think it’s one of those issues where we’ll have to wait until something really bad happens before it makes civilizations create some binding rules and come to the table and say, Hey, you cannot do this or that.”

Mr. Mitry acknowledges the space debris problem “is not something we as a community have gotten a good grasp on,” but with the world now paying attention to Kepler’s filing, he’s positioning his service as something that can help, and not just add to the problem. Kepler’s AEther service, he claims, “will improve operational and situational awareness” by providing better data that can both help astronomers anticipate obstructions to their view and enable operators to better manage space debris to avoid collisions.

The concerns about Kepler’s plans “are not a surprise to us … but educating the public around what our intentions are with the plan, with this filling, will help to improve both those issues for radioastronomy and for space traffic management and orbital debris that will line us up with why we’re doing this work and how it actually benefits the community,” Mr. Mitry said.

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