Burgeoning Satellite Industry Paving Way To $1 Trillion Space Economy

Satellites in LEO
Low Earth orbit (LEO) is ground zero for the coming boom in satellite networks. The charts below depict satellite populations in LEO from 2017-21 and projections through 2029. “Over the last five years, satellite deployment has grown 3,000%,” notes Mariel Borowitz, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. “That’s a pretty staggering number . . . and we’re just beginning to see how that will develop.”
Credit: Source: COMPSOC

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of operational satellites orbiting Earth jumped from 958 to 3,371, according to the latest Satellite Industry Association report. But that 252% increase pales in comparison to projections for the current decade.

“By 2030, there could be as many as 100,000 operational satellites in orbit,” says Steve Wolfe, co-founder and president of Beyond Earth Institute, a public policy think tank. “It’s staggering.”

  • Satellite population could reach 100,000 by 2030
  • Heritage companies joining startups in LEO, MEO

The satellites—and the launch services to deliver them—-are the most visible parts of a global space economy that is projected to grow from $400 billion to $1 trillion in annual revenue by 2040. Fueled largely by megaconstellations in low Earth orbit (LEO), including SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s global broadband systems, existing satellite operators are diversifying and in some cases transforming communication services traditionally provided by geosynchronous Earth-orbiting (GEO) spacecraft.

For example, the 52-year-old Canadian company Telesat, now operating 13 satellites in GEO, plans to invest about $5 billion into a new LEO network called Lightspeed. “Demand for broadband connectivity is surging around the world,” says Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg. “It’s basically doubling every three years, and that’s the projection going forward.”

 

SES, which owns and operates more than 70 satellites, hired Boeing to manufacture a new constellation for its O3b network in medium Earth orbit (MEO), about 5,000 mi. in altitude. The O3b mPower network, which is expected to be in orbit by 2023, is built on Boeing’s new 702X platform, a fully software-defined satellite suitable for LEO, MEO or GEO that allows operators to allocate bandwidth as market demand dictates. 

“A fully flexible, software-defined satellite is something that has never existed before, so there’s quite a bit of interest in the customer base right now,” says Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems. 

 

Boeing also is eyeing the LEO constellation market, which has drawn SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and other aspiring broadband satellite operators. “We’re in discussions with potential partners,” Reid says. “We don’t directly compete with [SpaceX] Starlink, for example, but our customers would. Where we come at it is understanding the problem they need to solve for their market and making sure we have the technologies to support it.”

 
Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.