Tens of thousands of satellites may be launched over the next several years, although actual predictions vary wildly.
While research firm Northern Sky Research (NSR) predicts that more than 33,000 satellites will be launched through 2031, research firm Euroconsult estimates only 17,000 will be launched in that time frame. Still, both agree that the actual number of satellites launched in the coming years will be significantly less than the total announced by all the companies in the space industry.
“We’re tracking all of the announced constellations, technically all the announced satellites,” Dallas Kasaboski, NSR principal analyst, told Connectivity Business News. “We assess [each] constellation across a number of factors, including the actual [capital expenditure] that’s required for these satellites.”
When a company announces a constellation of 1,000 satellites, for example, NSR expects that number to be less in any case where they may not all be necessary. In some cases, that may mean only 300 satellites are actually needed for worldwide coverage, so fewer would be launched, he added.
Starlink and Project Kuiper
Access to launch is another factor NSR analyzes. Starlink and Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) Project Kuiper “inherently have a higher access to launch [due to ties to SpaceX and Blue Origin, respectively] even if, in Amazon’s case, they are procuring commercial launch,” Kasaboski said.
Proven launch capability is also significant. SpaceX launched more satellites than planned in 2020, during a time when “a lot of satellite operators were not able to meet their launch manifests,” he added.
Earlier this year, Rwanda’s space agency submitted applications to the United Nations for launches of 300,000 satellites and 100,000 satellites, both backed by OneWeb and O3b Networks founder Greg Wyler, according to multiple reports. Wyler’s newest venture, sustainability-focused startup E-Space, raised $50 million in seed funding in February, according to PitchBook Data, in a transaction recorded in the Mandates database. E-Space plans to launch 100,000 satellites into orbit this decade.
Of the 33,000+ satellites that NSR predicts will be launched, OneWeb, Starlink, Project Kuiper and E-Space all contribute, Kasaboski said. However, both NSR and Euroconsult do not expect E-Space to meet its 100,000-satellite goal by 2031, based on both research firms’ estimates for the total number of satellites launched within that timeframe.
Federal Communications Commission regulations require constellations to launch half of their planned satellites in a five- or six-year window, Kasaboski said. Launch costs and manufacturing requirements add to the estimated cost of a constellation, he added.
Some constellations’ applications are more valuable than others, and therefore more likely to survive to completion. NSR is scrutinizing efforts to commercialize navigation services with new constellations, Kasaboski said. The benefit of satellite communications, which delivers ubiquitous availability, is easier to explain to customers and to regulators than a navigation service that offers a more accurate version of what the customer can get for free.
NSR’s analysis factors in competition, regulation, market demand and funding, he said. “Are they likely to get funding? If there’s some kind of political or policy structure interfering or slowing them down, are they likely going to be able to lobby to change that?” While communications operators have been able to change the rules, providers of navigation services will have a more challenging case to make to regulators, according to Kasaboski.