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IoT Satellites: Stellar Stars or Space Junk?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher sits ready for takeoff in the pre-dawn gloom on January 24th at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rocket would launch 143 satellites into space, sending 133 third-party units, as well as 10 tiny spacecraft produced by Starlink (a branch of SpaceX) into orbit, making this the most commercial satellites deployed in a single mission.

SpaceX and much of the media are focusing on the idea of a constellation of Starlink satellites circling the earth that can be seen as a solution to providing broadband Internet access everywhere. Equally interesting is the number of IoT satellites launched in the first of SpaceX’s Rideshare missions in late January.

Through its very low earth orbit (VLEO) swarm of satellites, Starlink promises initial data download speeds of 50Mbps to 150Mbps. The company currently has over a thousand satellites operating in its constellation, allowing it to keep a constant Internet connection all over the world. Starlink notes that users who live in areas with lots of tall trees or buildings may not be good candidates for early use of the service.

Like any other satellite Internet system, the signal can get diminished or blocked in periods of heavy rain or snowfall. The Starlink auto-configuring antenna dish needs a clear view of open sky in order to link to the satellite. It then shares the connectivity through a router via Wi-Fi with users’ other devices like smartphones and laptops.

“As more satellites are launched, the field of view constraints will decrease, enabling a wider variety of users,” Starlink claims.

Fiber access company Calix recently noted that Starlink’s system will never really provide reliable high-speed Internet service in the U.S. or elsewhere. This isn’t really the aim of Starlink, however. The point is to provide best-effort Internet service in rural areas that are not connected (or are poorly served) by wired DSL, cable links, or wireless services. In fact, SpaceX was recently awarded $885.5 million in funding from the FCC to provide Internet in 35 states over a 10-year period, with plans to support 642,925 sites in the U.S. over time.

The initial setup cost for Starlink is high, with nearly $500 needed for the satellite dish and Wi-Fi router required to start the service, although the $99 monthly charge for the amenity sits in the middle of the $50 to $150 usually asked by providers of rural Internet. SpaceX says that it now has over 10,000 users in its public beta program for Starlink in the United States and abroad.

Broadband Internet connections are not the only service that can be delivered by LEO satellites. New and existing IoT services could also be enabled by this new breed of spacecraft.

IoT connections that require service from remote locations — anywhere from the warm currents of the Pacific Ocean to the frigid steppes of Siberia — but don’t need much in the way of data speeds or massive packet downloads, are ideally suited to LEO services. For while the tiny spacecraft can’t provide the blazing speeds offered by some cable or 5G wireless services, they can efficiently link to IoT emergency panels, package trackers, panic buttons, and any other devices that send or receive just a few packets of data, especially where normal wired and wireless networks cannot offer connectivity.

While terrestrial cellular networks only cover around 20% of the Earth’s surface, satellite networks can blanket the entire planet, including the 70% of the globe that is covered by water. LEO satellites will offer an alternative even where coverage already exists from NB-IoT, LoRaWAN, Sigfox and other ground-based low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies.

SpaceX has started Rideshare flights in 2021 that can launch large numbers of third-party satellites simultaneously into a low orbit above the earth. The company is charging around $1 million to launch small third-party spacecraft into the atmosphere, a bargain in astronautic terms.

Among the 133 third-party satellites launched by SpaceX on January 24th, 2021, the payload included IoT satellites from Astrocast, Kepler Communications, and Swarm Technologies. New launch economics along with advances in satellite technology make it economically feasible to deploy large swathes of the tiny spacecraft.

Swarm Technologies launched 36 of its next-gen IoT satellites, along with the rest of the payload, at 525 kilometers above the earth’s surface. The firm intends to complete its 150-craft rollout of its network over the course of this year. Similarly, Astrocast said that it will launch 20 satellites in total through 2021.

This new breed of satellites is typically tiny, often flat, and can weigh just a few kilograms or less. The LEO constellation can enable connectivity with terminals on the ground or at sea, delivering lower latency communications than might normally be expected from satellites.

All of this is great news for IoT providers, allowing satellite communications to connect and support with low-data rate transmissions from anywhere around the globe.

The spacecraft, however, rely on basic maneuvering capability to navigate the crowded environs 500 kilometers above the earth that will only become more densely trafficked as more satellite swarms are launched.

SpaceX has acknowledged that some of its Starlink satellites have lost the ability to maneuver, rendering the devices space junk. This is a natural consequence of launching large amounts of tiny orbiting transceivers into space. Some will end up de-orbited or as cosmic debris. In fact, a SpaceX executive has even claimed that Starship, its next-generation rocket, could help to clean up some of this space junk.

“It’s quite possible that we could leverage Starship to go to some of these dead rocket bodies — other people’s rocket’s, of course — basically pick up some of this junk in outer space.” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer told Spaceflight Now in late October.

Of course, the problem of increasing debris in low earth orbit will become more prevalent as SpaceX continues to launch its own satellites, as well as third-party units, throughout the rest of this year. The next Rideshare launch is slated for the middle of 2021.

Already there have been near misses in near earth orbits. NASA says there are “millions of pieces of space junk” flying in low orbits around the earth. “Most orbital debris comprises human-generated objects, such as pieces of spacecraft, tiny flecks of paint from a spacecraft, parts of rockets, satellites that are no longer working, or explosions of objects in orbit flying around in space at high speeds”, the agency notes.

All of this debris will dramatically increase as more mega-constellations of satellites go into orbit. The benefits of better IoT coverage, as well as improved Internet from space, will need to be weighed against a near-earth atmosphere that is polluted with the high-tech garbage of a 21st-century space boom.

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