European satellite constellation: a virus and Europe’s options

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Satellit umkreist die Erde. 3D-Szene. Copyright: 3DSculptor, iStock #512144122

By Daniel Salzer //

We live in difficult times. From Wuhan, a Chinese city so far unknown to most of us, an epidemic spreads across China, and within a short period of time transforms into a global pandemic. No place on this Earth is safe from SARS-CoV-2 – a catastrophe singularly unique in centuries.

At the same time, the world of space exploration experiences its very own pandemic from the “city” of New Space. It first developed as an epidemic in the United States, with its varieties (mutations?) being Starlink, OneWeb, Kuiper and Telsat, to name a few. Tens of thousands of satellites … This constellation virus – also called “constellationitis 2” – seems to be growing into a pandemic, having reached European shores. The minds of several important economic as well as political figures are already being dominated by “constellationitis 2”.

Let’s look at this epidemic’s development in the United States where it originated. By now, the Starlink variety/ mutation seems to have pushed all other mutations there into the background. Already the OneWeb variety had to bite the dust and fundamentally change its structure after its bankruptcy in 2020. Today this variety latches onto a different kind of cells, mainly the cells of navigational systems. Of course, we do not have proof of this new OneWeb variety’s success in its new mantle; no reliable business plan is known. By contrast, the Starlink mutation with its strong Elon Musk DNA and its financial envelope made up of numerous investors continues to spread and attack all other varieties through its sheer presence. Its DNA promises great things: virtually unlimited bandwidth and data rates, a global presence, thousands of satellites. This promise has entrenched itself so thoroughly into the minds of its recipient cells – important economic as well as political authorities – that they are thinking neither about its purpose nor about its background, but are floating happily in the cloud. The apparent conclusion is that we need something like it in Europe as well. And yet several factors are being overlooked. Over here, we don’t have any Elon Musk DNA (even if we wanted to), neither do we have any investor-driven envelope with which we could plunge into any waves of “constellationitis 2”. And it’s too late for copycatting. The only thing we think we have is tax money, and even that is only a matter of faith.

Europe should ask itself the fundamental question whether we should contract this constellation virus, needing to implement our own satellite constellation to provide European citizens as well as the European industry with an adequate communication structure. Let’s look at the example of Starlink. In April 2019, Starlink released a statement that, over the course of the following 60 months, they intended to get 44 satellites each month into space, bringing all of the specified 2,200 satellites online within six years. By now, there are to be 12,000 satellites. By the end of 2019, 60 of these satellites were in orbit, 57 thereof operational, and 47 of these had reached their designated orbit. In September 2019, Starlink amended the specifications, which were approved by the FCC in December. By January 2021, Starlink has put 1,045 satellites into orbit. In February 2021, Starlink announced that the constellation had 10.000 users. Based on $ 99/month, the monthly fee advertised by Starlink in late 2020, the revenues can be projected at less than $1m. According to a statement made by Elon Musk, Starlink is projected to generate an annual revenue of $30bn from 2025 onwards – an utterly unattainable objective as the available bandwidth is simply limited. Even if by then half of the projected 12,000 satellites were operational, one could expect about $3bn annually – one tenth of the promised number. Of course, no one knows of a business plan. People suspect the constellation forming the basis for SpaceX’s profitability.

The logic behind implementing Starlink becomes clearer once the following two factors are considered. First, it is evident that in this cut-throat competition – at best, if at all – only one constellation can offer the bandwidth necessary for economic survival. And Starlink’s implementation is the quickest. Second, Mr Musk could actually be pursuing a wholly different goal: to afford his growing automotive business the kind of worldwide connectivity independent from any other networks. So perhaps it’s not at all about a constellation’s profitability but about the profitability of Musk’s world, funded by the sales of Tesla cars. Starlink may be one of the building blocks, regardless of its profitability. Interestingly enough, the virus seems to have reached Germany. In February, Volkswagen has announced in the Wirtschaftswoche that they are thinking about a co-operation with Elon Musk, including a European constellation component. The virus also seems to be spreading from the United States to China, in opposite direction to COVID-19. In June 2020, Geely, an investor in Daimler and Volvo, invested about $330 M in a satellite plant of their own. BYD, too, has shown interest in satellites.

For Europe, two fundamental questions should be asked. First, whether this kind of model would be economically feasible for Europe, and second, whether this kind of model would be crucial enough for European industry as well as European users to necessitate the implementation of an appropriate system of tax funding. The EU projects the volume of investments to be €7-9 Bn – and, as with every project of this kind, we would have to expect the total to be much higher. Like with Starlink, we cannot assume any economic feasibility from the operation of this system. The question that remains unanswered is that about the strategic significance of such a system for European industries and users – the very same question that, after many years of discussion, was answered in the affirmative for the navigational system Galileo. But a communications system is different from Galileo… Yet, like with Galileo, it would be years after Starlink’s initial operation that we could provide the respective infrastructure.

Before plunging head-first into this adventure – and there is currently no private space ventures with a market value of $74bn like SpaceX in Europe – we should endeavour to determine the actual economic and socio-political needs for European industry and citizens in a global context, instead of getting infected with the “constellationitis 2” from the very start. It is imperative that we determine the needs as well as define the best option to meet them with GEO, MEO, and LEO satellites from Europe. Already today Europe has available astronautic resources that can be adapted to the future needs in global low-latency communication, and doubtlessly with substantially lower expenses, effort, and risk.

Regrettably, we didn’t have the means to stop COVID-19, but we do have the chance to stop this constellation pandemic in Europe – although we do need a sensible and coherent alternative. The option to just watch Mr Musk et al. without taking action is one we do not have.