In 1978 NASA scientist Donald J Kessler published a paper on the potential for satellite collisions. The earth’s orbit, he posited, might eventually get so crowded that satellites would start bumping into each other. When that happened the resulting debris would career into other satellites, causing more problems.
His warning was that the cascade effect (now known as Kessler Syndrome) would also create a trail of junk that made rocket launches and satellite navigation difficult for decades to come.
NASA took his concerns seriously and, although the theory has been modified over the years, it still runs the orbital debris programme he set up. So one wonders what Kessler makes of a new, low-orbit space race that is trying to put thousands of small ‘fixed position’ satellites into space to speed up terrestrial data transfer.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched 60 such Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and has asked permission for 30,000 more. London-based OneWeb – backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group – has launched 40 and has plans for another 900. And in April last year Amazon announced its goal of putting 3,236 satellites into orbit to provide internet services to “unserved and underserved communities around the world”.
All of these firms will now be jostling for room with Chinese carmaker Geely, which this month announced that it would build and launch its own series of LEO satellites too. “By the end of 2020, Geespace will begin the launch of its commercial low-orbit satellite network,” the Zhejiang-based firm said in a press release. In a nod to Kessler it added that its satellites were designed to disintegrate naturally after a service period of 10 years.
“The prevention of space debris is of utmost concern to everyone and Geely will take every measure to ensure its presence in space is sustainable,” it promised.
So why is Geely – which owns Swedish brand Volvo Cars, Malaysia’s Proton and a stake in Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler – wanting to make satellites?
The answer is somewhat different to those given by Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Geely’s prime motivations for launching its LEOs is to improve the accuracy of the geo-location services that will guide self-driving cars. Current GPS navigation systems rely on high-orbit satellites and are only accurate to several metres. Geely’s bet is that the LEO network will deliver “centimetre-accurate precision”.
Geely plans to introduce ‘level three’ autonomous cars of its own this year – at level three the driver is still present but under certain traffic conditions the car can take over some “safety-critical functions”. But by 2022 it wants to be producing level four cars which are fully autonomous under most conditions.
Musk, Bezos and OneWeb are more focused on providing speedier access to data via their satellite networks, with signals from their satellites supposed to travel faster than through fibre optic cable. Some customers – stock market traders, for example – will pay for the millisecond reductions in latency.
In other cases lower altitude satellites simply allow internet services in areas not served by other technologies.
Musk has been coy about whether Tesla ultimately intends to use the SpaceX Starlink satellite network in support of its own vehicles. At the moment he says the hardware required is too weighty for the cars and the latency is too great.
Meanwhile, for all Geely’s grand plans, analysts are warning that it may have trouble finding slots for its satellites. “Precedence is likely to be given to state-owned space giants,” the Financial Times predicts. Jiemian also advises Geely to get its bids in early, because “orbital positions are non-renewable resources”.
“First come, first served,” the news site adds.