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Elon Musk dominates orbit with Starlink satellites

Billionaire entrepreneur's SpaceX takes 60% share of global launch business

KENTARO TAKEDA, Nikkei data journalist, and AIKO MUNAKATA, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Elon Musk's presence in the satellite communications business is growing, with SpaceX, a company founded by the billionaire entrepreneur, now accounting for just over 60% of the world's satellite launches this year.

Low Earth orbit satellite constellations already offer faster communications than land-based broadband in some locations. Musk, who is also founder of the world's biggest electric vehicle maker, Tesla, is investing a great deal of energy into this growing market.

After meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 20 during Modi's visit to the U.S., Musk expressed his desire to begin offering satellite communications in India, saying improved connectivity "can be incredibly helpful" in remote villages with poor broadband access. India has a population of 1.4 billion, but only 2% of its households have high-speed fixed-line internet.

A single SpaceX rocket can carry as many as 60 satellites at once. This year, as of the end of June, the company had already put more than 1,000 satellites in orbit. It now accounts for more than 60% of satellites launched worldwide, according to the data from Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. SpaceX has sent nearly 5,000 satellites to space since 2019 and has applied for permission to operate a total of 42,000. It has few competitors; its Big Tech rival Amazon plans to launch a prototype satellite later this year.

SpaceX's Starlink satellites can offer high-speed internet access as they orbit 300 to 600 kilometers above the Earth's surface, much lower than meteorological and other satellites, which normally operate in an orbit of around 36,000 km. To get internet access, Starlink customers only need to install a 50-by-30 centimeter antenna.

Starlink has grown primarily in the business-to-business segment. Royal Caribbean Group, a U.S. cruise line, and Zipair Tokyo, a Japanese budget airline, are among its corporate customers. Starlink has also played an important role in Ukraine, where many ground communications facilities have been destroyed in Russian attacks.

In terms of speed, Starlink is at least comparable to ground-based services, and is up to 40% faster than ordinary broadband in Britain and twice as fast in Australia, according to Ookla, a U.S. provider of internet speed testing services.

As satellites do away with the need for cables, they have a big advantage in rural villages and remote areas with poor communications infrastructure. The number of satellite broadband users is expected to more than double worldwide, from 71 million people in 2022 to 153 million by 2031, according to Euroconsult, a space industry consultancy.

Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley forecasts the global market for satellite communications services will grow thirteenfold between 2020 and 2040, to $95 billion, led by demand from autonomous vehicles. Satellite links are a powerful tool for self-driving cars as they can continuously update software anywhere, according to Adam Jonas, a company analyst.

However, satellite communications are relatively new and not without risk. OneWeb, a British satellite operator, collapsed in 2020 after running into financial difficulties and was rescued by the government.

Even SpaceX is not entirely on solid ground. It has been developing markets while receiving large subsidies from Washington and project orders from NASA. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Starlink "will make money" in 2023.

While Musk races ahead, Japan is falling far behind, with just 10 to 20 satellites launched a year. "Japan needs to better cooperate with the U.S. and Europe in the telecommunications business, while boosting public-private efforts to promote such promising areas as space debris removal and moon exploration," said Seiko Shirasaka, a professor at Keio University.




With SpaceX’s planned Starlink constellation of 12,000 satellites and Amazon’s proposed constellation in the works, the new space race continues its acceleration.

Let’s take a closer look at who operates those satellites and how they apply their technology.

Technology with a purpose

Humans have long used space for navigation. While sailors once relied on the stars, today we use satellites for GPS, navigation, and various other applications.

More than half of Earth’s operational satellites are launched for commercial purposes. About 61% of those provide communications, including everything from satellite TV and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity to global internet.

Space satellites communications Earth innovation.
Over 1,000 satellites are for communication purposes. Image: Visual Capitalist

Second to communications, 27% of commercial satellites have been launched for Earth Observation (EO) purposes, including environmental monitoring and border security.

Commercial satellites, however, can serve multiple purposes. One week, a satellite may be ‘tasked’ to image a contested border. It could later be tasked to monitor the reclamation of a mining site or even the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Space satellites commercial government military civil
54% of operational satellites are for commercial use. Image: Visual Capitalist

Government and civil purposes make up 21% of all of Earth’s operational satellites, and military purposes come in at 13%.

Who owns Earth’s orbit? Space operators

SpaceX—founded by Elon Musk—is not only a disruptive launch provider for missions to the International Space Station (saving NASA millions). It’s also the largest commercial operator of satellites on the planet.

With 358 satellites launched as of April, part of SpaceX’s mission is to boost navigation capabilities and supply the world with space-based internet.

While the company operated 22% of the world’s operational satellites as of April, it went on to launch an additional 175 satellites in the span of one month, from August to September 2020.

Space satellites SpaceX Planet Labs Spire Global Iridium
SpaceX owns 22% of the commercial satellites. Image: Visual Capitalist

Following its series of summer launches, SpaceX announced that it had deployed enough satellites to support the beta version of its satellite-based internet service, Starlink.

Every Commercial Satellite in One Table

Since December 2005, the UCS has compiled data on every operational satellite in Earth’s orbit. In the table below, you’ll find every commercial satellite in orbit, as of April 2020.

Space satellites Space X Planet Labs Spire Global
SpaceX currently owns 358 satellites. Image: Visual Capitalist

Cubesats, microsats, nanosats, and more—the new space race is all about small satellites.

With its flock of small EO satellites, or “doves”, Planet Labs now has more than 150 satellites in operation (however, in April 2020, the number exceeded 250, as per above data).

Even Amazon is preparing for space. In July of 2020, the FCC granted approval for Jeff Bezos’s tech empire to launch and operate an internet constellation of 3,236 satellites.

Nations that dominate Earth’s orbit

It may be no surprise that the United States, China, and Russia top the list of countries with operational satellites.

The U.S. and Russia (then the USSR) piloted the space race throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Both nations are found in the top three of current satellite operators, with the U.S. operating nearly half of all satellites—1,308 as of April 2020.

China trails the U.S. with approximately 356 satellites. Taking third spot, Russia has 167 satellites in operation, and the UK comes in at a close fourth with 130 satellites.

Space satellites orbit Earth U.S. UK Russia China
China owns 356 operational satellites. Image: Visual Capitalist

Collectively, the above five countries operate roughly 76% of the world’s satellites.

The new space race

Where the original space race was a nationalistic competition between Cold War rivals, the new space race is collaborative and commercialized.

Today, international cooperation allows for the deployment of satellites, as well as space-based science. Before SpaceX, NASA and the other space agencies that operate the International Space Station had been reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets for hundreds of missions.

With the success of its famed reusable rockets, SpaceX is on track to reduce launch costs by as much as US$6 million per flight—which is likely to support the proliferation of satellites in the coming years.

With improved technology and commercial partnerships, all signs point to a crowded orbit.

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