New LEO projects

New LEO projects

  • December 2016 •
  • 53 pages •
  • Report ID: 4606011 •
  • Format: PDF
Game changers and opportunities

Low Earth orbit satellite constellations bring both advantages and drawbacks as compared to other orbits. The idea of LEO satellite constellation is not new and there have already been several (failed) attempts at launching such constellations in the past. Both the technology and the markets have changed since then, paving the way for renewed interest. Ambitious projects have emerged but not all will succeed.

After a first wave of interest in the mid-1990s followed by several failures at the beginning of the 2000s, LEO constellations are again under the spotlight, with players such as SpaceX and OneWeb showing great ambition. These LEO constellations must bring reduced latency and increased capacity but how does it match with the market demand of today and tomorrow. How disruptive are LEO constellations and what place could they find in the telecom market...

- What makes LEO different from MEO and GEO satellites?
- Why would LEO constellations be more successful today than yesterday? What has changed?
- Which markets do LEO constellations target?
- What place will LEO have in the era of 5G?
- What challenges lie in building such constellations?
- Who will succeed? Who will have more difficulty?

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A renewed interest in LEO
As we seen, the interest for low Earth orbit is not new. Many satellites are to be found in this orbit because of its proximity to the Earth and its practicality (less energy required for launch, heavier payload, better link budget…). Many observations satellites have been launched in this orbit, either civilian or military and space missions such as the International Space Station today are to be found in this orbit.

The first artificial satellite in the world launched in October 1957 by the USSR, Sputnik 1, was a LEO satellite. What was relatively new in the 1990s was the idea of building large satellite constellations to provide global communication services. The constellation projects of the 1990s all turned out to be a failure to a certain point. Most projects did not materialise and those who did, such as Iridium, ORBCOMM and Globalstar went bankrupt in the 2000’s before being restructured or purchased by a new investor. The issue at that time was the lack of market, too expensive solutions and obviously the competition from terrestrial cellular communication systems, much more adapted to everyone’s communication needs.

The history of Iridium in that matter is a telling example of a project that did not (at first) find its market. Initially marketed as a global communication solution for everyone, it was far too expensive, both in terms of user equipment and communication price to compete with GSM. After its bankruptcy, the company and its assets were purchased by Dan Colussy, and it is only after being remarketed to serve the niche market of explorers, journalists and military forces, leveraging on its polar orbit to cover areas otherwise not covered by any GEO satellites, that it eventually found a way to make money. The table below list main LEO constellation projects from the 1990s.

Boeing,Facebook,Globalstar,Google,Intelsat,Iridium,LeoSat,O3B/SES,OneWeb,Orbcomm,Planetlab,Skybox imaging,Skybridge,Spacebelt,SpaceX,Teledesic,Telesat

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