In The Art of War, Sun Tzu famously advised, “When the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him.” But disruptive startup companies are famously irreverent, and so perhaps it is no surprise that scrappy new space ventures are challenging the Old Guard in orbit by doing the unthinkable: attacking from below.
Two cornerstone satellite services — telecommunications and Earth observation — are being reinvented by companies willing to boldly go lower than their firmly encamped competitors into orbits that were previously considered undesirable.
There is a very special satellite orbit 36,000 km away called geostationary orbit that is geometrically ideal for relaying communication signals around the Earth. A single satellite placed in this orbit can receive an Olympic television signal broadcast from Korea and relay it to London. The problem is that this orbit is very high up — so high in fact, that it takes quarter of a second for a radio signal to make the round-trip from Korea, up to the satellite, and down to London.
This time delay isn’t such a big deal if you are watching the giant slalom, but it makes something as simple as internet video conferencing almost unbearable. And it can’t be fixed, since radio signals travel at the speed of light and even Einstein couldn’t find a way to change this speed. A satellite in this geometrically ideal orbit must always suffer from this latency.
A potential fix
However, there is a potential fix to the problem — one that is dangerous, bold, and financially lucrative beyond all dreams. This is where the space startups come in, fifteen of them in fact, that all filed for licenses with the FCC in November of 2016. Their obvious solution is to fly the satellites much lower, at only 1,000 km compared to 36,000 km, so that the round-trip time of communications signals is reduced and thus satellites can reliably be used for global wireless internet without that annoying latency issue.
The problem is that you need a lot of satellites — like hundreds or even thousands of them. The satellites are so low that the satellite receiving the uplink from Korea can’t see over the horizon to London, so it has to first beam the signal to another satellite, which may have to hand it off to yet another satellite, and so on, before reaching a satellite that has line-of-sight to London. This is the kind of problem tailor-made for maverick startup companies.
Now on to Earth…
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