Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology

  • IASbaba
  • June 3, 2021
  • 0
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  • GS-3: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life. 
  • GS-3: Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources, growth, development and employment.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology

Context: Following the successful launch of 36 satellites on May 28, OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 in-orbit satellites

  • The company only has one more launch to complete before it obtains the capacity to enable its ‘Five to 50’ service of offering internet connectivity to all regions north of 50 degrees latitude. 

What is OneWeb?

  • OneWeb is a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites. 
  • In 2010, the company declared bankruptcy but was able to resume operations following an inflow of investment from a consortium consisting of the UK Government, Hughes Communication, Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Global Limited, SoftBank and Eutelsat, a leading European satellite operator.

LEO technology

  • LEO satellites have been orbiting the planet since the 1990s, providing companies and individuals with various communication services
  • LEO satellites are positioned around 500km-2000km from earth, compared to stationary orbit satellites which are approximately 36,000km away. 
  • Latency, or the time needed for data to be sent and received, is contingent on proximity. 
  • As LEO satellites orbit closer to the earth, they are able to provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems. 
  • Additionally, because signals travel faster through space than through fibre-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.
  • However, LEO satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kph and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes. As a result, individual satellites can only make direct contact with a land transmitter for a short period of time thus requiring massive LEO satellite fleets and consequently, a significant capital investment.
  • Due to these costs, of the three mediums of Internet – fibre, spectrum and satellite – the latter is the most expensive.
  • Therefore, LEO satellite broadband is only preferable in areas that cannot be reached by fibre and spectrum services. OneWeb’s target market will therefore be rural populations and military units operating away from urban areas.

Did You Know?

  • Google launched its ‘Loon’ project in 2013, using high-altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network. After testing the service in rural Kenya, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, abandoned the project in 2021. 
  • Taking a different track, Facebook attempted to beam internet down to earth using drones. However, after two failed test flights, it also abandoned the project in 2018.
  • Over 70% of rural Indians do not have access to the Internet, a problem that is particularly worrisome given the increasing need for digital integration in the fields of education and banking in light of the pandemic.

Concerns of Leo Technology

  • Complexity due to multiple players: OneWeb satellites are produced in the US, its rockets are made and launched in Russia and its launches are facilitated by a company based out of France. Due to multiple stakeholders involved, the regulatory framework will be complicated 
  • Regulation of Space activities: Also, there is confusion on who dictates activities in space. This is because, today, the balance of power has shifted from countries to companies. 
  • There are logistical challenges with launching thousands of satellites into space as well. 
  • Difficulties for astronomers: Satellites can sometimes be seen in the night skies which creates difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images. 
  • Frequency interruption: Satellites travelling at a lower orbit can also interrupt the frequency of those orbiting above them, an accusation that has been levelled against Starlink satellites already. 
  • Increased space junk & dangers of collision: Another worry is that there are already almost 1 million objects larger than 1cm in diameter in orbit, a byproduct of decades of space activities. Those objects, colloquially referred to as ‘space junk,’ have the potential to damage spacecrafts or collide with other satellites.
  • High Cost: While companies like OneWeb and Starlink have marketed themselves to rural Indian consumers, given their price points it is unlikely that most rural Indians will be able to afford their services.

Connecting the dots:

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