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June 10 (UPI) — The developers of new communications satellite constellations — connecting virtually every part of the Earth — are engaged in a multibillion-dollar battle to develop dominance in space and the immense revenue that could bring, industry experts say.
Elon Musk‘s Starlink is part of a new wave of ventures by several companies to cover the globe with faster, better internet by using constellations of satellites that number in the thousands. At stake is the future of communications on Earth and in space.
But the road to profitability is not navigated simply by launching scores of satellites at a single shot. Other factors come into play.
For example, Musk acknowledged recently that the cost of the user terminal is the biggest challenge for his project. He previously said he hoped to develop a terminal that would sell for under $300, but analysts say that will be difficult.
“Getting the signal to the customer [affordably] has always been the issue with new communications satellite service,” said Hamed Khorsand, founder of California-based BWS Financial, which provides research on technology and communications companies.
“You can’t just put up satellites and think that will solve everything. You have to have revenue,” Khorsand said.
Both Starlink and OneWeb began in 2015. As OneWeb continued to develop, Starlink launched repeatedly. As of June 3, Musk’s SpaceX has launched 480 Starlink spacecraft.
The company has said it anticipates to invest about $10 billion in Starlink, with a potential for $30 billion to $50 billion in annual revenue if the system becomes fully operational.
Musk said on Twitter recently that limited service could be tested by around August — when SpaceX aims to have 800 satellites in orbit — in what is called a beta validation. In technology development, beta validations attempt to demonstrate a new software or service to a limited number of potential users.
Enter Bezos, whose plans for space communications services under the Project Kuiper mantle, are shrouded in secrecy.
In the battle for funding, Bezos’ deep pockets only grew deeper as the coronavirus pandemic sent more people online to shop. Analysts following the high-tech satellite slugfest say they have no idea how much Bezos — who consistently ranks among the wealthiest people in the world — is investing in Project Kuiper.
Amazon, though, aims to launch more than 3,200 satellites, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But details of the constellation remain mostly under wraps as the company builds a new headquarters and prototype manufacturing laboratories near Seattle.
Like Starlink, OneWeb said it aimed to provide reliable internet service to remote regions. But OneWeb had only three launches and ran into funding trouble just as the pandemic took hold.
The company was testing and developing technology with 74 satellites in orbit and permits for up to 720.
In bankruptcy court, OneWeb reported assets of $3.3 billion, the most significant of which are radio-frequency licenses and licenses to receive signals in nations around the globe, while its debts and liabilities were $2.1 billion.
Despite the positive balance sheet, the company said financial market fallout from the pandemic interrupted efforts to raise more money for expansion of the satellite network. As a startup, the company had no significant revenue.
OneWeb, based in Virginia and London, continues to operate with a reduced staff since it filed for bankruptcy in March and laid off about 450 workers — more than three-fourths of its payroll.
The satellite startup filed a new application with the FCC in late May to boost the number of planned satellites to 48,000.
OneWeb’s move to seek more satellite permits is aimed at making it more attractive to a new owner, or for a sale of the existing satellites, analyst Khorsand said.
“It’s really more about whether anyone can use the satellites that are up there already. I just don’t know if they are compatible with any other company’s technology, because most of the technology is pretty proprietary,” he said.
Despite backing from major players like Airbus and Richard Branson‘s Virgin Group, OneWeb made its bankruptcy filing after a big investor, Japan-based Softbank Group, withheld additional funding in March as the pandemic spread and a recession took hold.
One veteran player had planned to join the fray, as well.
Intelsat, founded in 1964, has been reborn with new investments several times. It planned a communications satellite constellation, but filed for bankruptcy protection in May as financial fallout from the pandemic hit many industries. The company cited only “substantial legacy debt” in its bankruptcy announcement.
Observers of the satellite communications industry are well-acquainted with struggling startups and bankruptcy — due to the high cost of getting underway and the time needed to become fully operational.
Costs increase more because federal and international regulations require thruster systems on the communications satellites to avoid potential collisions.
Khorsand noted that another firm in the competition, Iridium Communications, went bankrupt in 1999 after launching a communications satellite constellation. The company later emerged from bankruptcy and now provides service to major customers, including the U.S. military. It has 75 satellites in orbit.
With lucrative military contracts providing an enticement, SpaceX also is gunning for that market. The company said it already has worked with the Air Force to test the signal from Starlink.
SpaceX eventually wants to have an armada of satellites that would beam data around the globe, using laser optics in the vacuum of space that could move data close to the speed of light.
Iridium is the only commercial provider that presently uses such laser optics, said Chris Quilty, founder of Florida-based Quilty Analytics, an aerospace analyst firm.
Before such space laser connections can happen, Starlink will need a new generation of Starlink satellites, Quilty said. The current Starlink satellites in orbit aren’t designed for that technology, he said.
“Starlink will have ground stations, but over the ocean, there are no ground stations, so it has to have a crosslink based in space to beam super-fast service around the world,” Quilty said.
For Musk and Bezos, dominating the future of space communication also could benefit their long-term goals to explore the moon and Mars, Quilty said.
“You can’t fund Mars exploration only on the launch business, especially if SpaceX is successful at shrinking the cost of launch dramatically, which is the company’s goal,” Quilty said.
“If Musk is successful at establishing a colony on Mars, a good communications link to Earth will be vital, and Starlink would help that.”
Astronauts return to space from U.S. soil
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken, who flew the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, brief mission controllers about their experience in the new vehicle on June 1. Photo courtesy of NASA
Newly arrived NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, front row from left to right, pose for a photo with the rest of the crew aboard the International Space Station on May 31. On the back row, from left to right are Roscosmos flight engineer Anatoly Ivanishin, NASA Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos engineer Ivan Vagner. Photo courtesy of NASA
SpaceX’s Dragonship Endeavor, with Behnken and Hurley on board, docks with the International Space Station at 10:16 am EST on May 31. The Crew Dragon’s nose cone is open, revealing the spacecraft’s docking mechanism that would connect to the Harmony module’s forward international docking adapter. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at 3:22 p.m. May 30 with Hurley and Behnken aboard the first manned Crew Dragon spacecraft from Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
The Demo-2 mission is the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS as part of the NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA | License Photo
Spectators on Cocoa Beach, Fla., watch as Behnken and Hurley lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39-A onboard SpaceX Demo-2 Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon to the ISS. Photo By Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
Behnken gives a thumbs-up. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket stand on Launch Complex 39A on May 29. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
NASA and SpaceX were attempting the launch a second time after the launch was scrubbed on May 27 due to weather. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken depart the checkout building. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
The Falcon 9 vents fuel after NASA and SpaceX management called a hold to the launch on May 27 due to weather. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, looks at a monitor showing a live feed of the rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on the pad during the countdown on May 27. The launch was scrubbed with only minutes to go. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA | License Photo
Spectators leave Cocoa Beach after the launch was canceled. Photo By Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo
Behnken (L) and Hurley are seen in the crew access arm at Launch Complex 39A on May 27. They were strapped into the Crew Dragon capsule when weather forced a postponement. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
From left to right, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, second lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, first lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin, Mike Hawes, vice president of human space exploration and Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stop by the Artemis I capsule during a tour of the Armstrong operations building. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
Trump participates in a SpaceX Demonstration Mission 2 launch briefing following the departure of NASA astronauts to board a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on May 27. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, prepare to depart the operations building for Launch Complex 39A to board the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
From left to right, SpaceX owner and chief engineer Elon Musk, Bridenstine, Mike Pence and Karen Pence applaud the astronauts as they head to the spacecraft. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken give their families virtual hugs as they prepare for the Demo-2 mission launch. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
Hurley boards a Tesla Model X for the ride to the launch area. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket lie horizontally on Complex 39A on May 26. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
The Vehicle Assembly Building is seen at sunset as preparations continue for the NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission on May 25. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA | License Photo
In this black-and-white infrared image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen on the launch pad. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA | License Photo
This is a view of the crew access arm in position with the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on May 24. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Behnken and Hurley are seen on a monitor showing inside the Crew Dragon capsule at Launch Complex 39A during a dress rehearsal May 23. Photo by SpaceX/UPI | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken participate in a dress rehearsal for launch at Kennedy Space Center on May 23. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
Behnken rehearses putting on his SpaceX spacesuit in the astronaut crew quarters. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
Hurley and Behnken return to the Armstrong building from Launch Complex 39A after completing the dress rehearsal. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
Norm Knight, deputy director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (L), and Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (R), monitor the countdown during the dress rehearsal. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken depart the Armstrong building for Launch Complex 39A. NASA Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI | License Photo
NASA and SpaceX managers participate in a flight readiness review for the upcoming Demo-2 launch in the Operations Support Building II at Kennedy Space Center on May 21. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Kennedy Space Center as preparations continue on May 21 for the Demo-2 mission. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
The rocket is raised into a vertical position on the launch pad as preparations continue for the mission. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo
From left to right, Behnken and Hurley pose with Bridenstine and Cabana after the astronauts’ arrival at the space center in Florida on May 20. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
The two astronauts arrive to be the first crew to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on the SpaceX Crew Demo spacecraft. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
Hurley speaks to the media following his arrival at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft arrives at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, transported from the company’s processing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 15. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that will be used for the Crew-1 mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program undergoes processing inside the clean room at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Behnken (L) and Hurley successfully completed a fully integrated test of Crew Dragon’s critical flight hardware at a SpaceX processing facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 30. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
NASA and SpaceX completed an end-to-end demonstration of the teams’ ability to safely evacuate crew members from the fixed service structure during an emergency situation at Launch Complex 39A on April 3. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoes final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Hurley examines the critical flight hardware during the test on March 30. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Hurley (R) and Behnken participate in SpaceX’s flight simulator. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
SpaceX teams executed a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, with Hurley (R) and Behnken participating in SpaceX’s flight simulator on March 19 and 20. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule completes acoustic testing in Florida. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Hurley (L) and Behnken stand near Launch Pad 39A during a dress rehearsal ahead of the SpaceX uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test at Kennedy Space Center on January 17. In the background, the company’s Falcon 9 rocket is topped by the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight test will demonstrate the spacecraft’s escape capabilities. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
Bridenstine (L) and Musk converse at Kennedy Space Center’s launch control center while awaiting liftoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on the uncrewed in-flight abort test on January 19. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
Hurley (R) and Behnken don SpaceX spacesuits in the astronaut crew quarters during a dress rehearsal. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
The test, which did not have NASA astronauts aboard, demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosts the Crew Dragon spacecraft for NASA on a launch abort test from Complex 39A at Kennedy on January 19. SpaceX conducted the test as a final measure to assure safety for future crewed missions to the ISS. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI | License Photo