In 2020, China applied to operate GuoWang, a constellation of 12,992 broadband Internet satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), and in 2021 it became clear that it was destined to become the global broadband LEO constellation of China. Can they do it? Maybe, but it will take a long time.
China does not have the capacity to launch 12,992 satellites today. I don’t know the mass of their planned satellites, but GuoWang is unofficially called the Chinese answer to Starlink. The Starlink version 1 satellites weighed 262 kg each and version 2 would be between 800 and 1,250 kg. If, for example, the GuoWang satellites turn out to weigh 500kg, the constellation would require 260 launches using China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, assuming no failure. and ignoring the replacement, and that would be 867 launches using the future reusable Longue rocket. 8 March. But times are changing. In a recent DongFang Hour podcast, Jean Deville said there are about 20 new commercial launch companies in China, and they are raising an unprecedented amount of money. While none of these are in the class of SpaceX’s starship, which they say will be capable of launching more than 100 tons toward LEO, China’s upcoming Long March 9 is designed to launch 150 tons toward LEO. (Elon Musk tweeted that they might be able to get it up to ~150 tons in a reusable spacecraft). one could imagine the iconoclast Elon Musk proposing to launch GuoWang satellites using Starships).
Last September, China had only 431 satellites in orbit. Chinese SOEs clearly lack the capacity to produce and maintain satellites for a mega constellation. As with the launch, one or perhaps a coalition of private companies could be called upon to manufacture GuoWang satellites.
As Jean Deville put it, “2022 could be the first year of significant, even massive, deployment of small Chinese satellites.” He cited the example of the completion of the GalaxySpace satellite production line at their “super factory” in Nantong and showed the first six broadband communications satellites that had just been completed. He also described several other satellite manufacturing companies, including automaker Geely, which has a factory capable of producing 500 satellites a year and extensive experience in mass production.
Optical links and ground infrastructure
Inter-satellite optical links are a priority for LEO constellations – they will reduce latency and the need for ground stations – and China has relatively limited access to global ground infrastructure. As with launching and manufacturing satellites, there are promising start-ups, but China is lagging behind established companies like Mynaric and Tesat and being prevented from using their products by the current tech cold war and Made policy. in China 2025 by Xi.
Optical links between satellites and the ground could partly compensate for the lack of radio frequency ground stations and China’s recently released five-year white paper says they have tested satellite-to-ground laser communication. Ground station load can also be reduced by relaying data via geostationary satellites, and the five-year outlook includes a commitment to a coordinated multi-orbit communications system.
Amazon offers ground station service and space/earth systems consulting service AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions and Microsoft offers Azure Orbital ground station service, which enables satellite-based access to its Azure cloud services. Will Chinese web services and ground infrastructure companies integrate with GuoWang?
GuoWang is behind SpaceX Starlink and almost as far behind constellations OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon Kuiper, but the political divide between China and the United States might protect him enough to survive. Starlink service will not be allowed in China, and they will discourage it in countries that participate in their Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and GuoWang service will not be allowed in the United States or countries that we are closely with allies.
This division protects GuoWang from competitive market pressure, and it locks in global waste and economic inefficiency by ensuring that LEO constellations will be able to carry traffic but will otherwise be idle in orbit above “enemy” nations. .
I’ve reviewed three areas where GuoWang needs to catch up, but GuoWang, Starlink and other potential broadband internet service providers also face common constraints such as LEO debris and spectrum scarcity (note that SpaceX has also asked to launch 30,000 other broadband service providers satellites). Optical links between constellations and the ground can ease the spectrum constraint if inter-satellite routing algorithms are climate sensitive, but global collaboration will be needed to deal with debris, collision avoidance and scarcity of the spectrum.
GuoWang faces an uphill battle. If SpaceX and the others don’t go bankrupt, they will have been operating for years before GuoWang completes a constellation of 12,992 satellites. On the other hand, the Chinese government has given high priority to GuoWang, their lunar, Mars and space station programs started long after ours, and China plans to “build a satellite communications network with in-orbit coordination high and low” in the next five years. .