The Satellite Renaissance

A deep dive into the burgeoning space economy

Midjourney / Prompt: "Create a water-color illustration of satellites in space"

It’s difficult to exaggerate Elon Musk’s role in reviving space tech. Before SpaceX successfully launched a rocket into orbit in 2008, the United States had lost both the capability and the desire to go to space. 

The cost of sending anything into orbit was astronomical. Building and launching a satellite was a feat only a nation or a massive corporation could do. Despite their usefulness, only a thousand or so of satellites were orbiting the Earth in the 2010s.

Today, that number has jumped to over 7,000 active satellites. In large part thanks to SpaceX, we find ourselves undergoing a massive transition in which entrepreneurs and tinkerers can launch machines into orbit. Satellites are playing increasingly critical roles in navigation, weather monitoring, telecommunications, national security, and more.

As the number of satellites and space-based services continues to grow, many aspects of our world will change—how we connect to the internet, use our technology devices, and even farm. This essay explores life amid this satellite renaissance and the opportunities on the horizon. 

The dawn of the Second Space Age

By the turn of the 21st century, NASA’s budget was a fraction of what it was at its inception. NASA was getting 4.5% of the US annual budget when the organization was founded, but by the early 2010s, that number had deflated to a mere 0.5%

As a result, US rocket engines were being recycled from Soviet-era parts, which, according to Elon Musk, were housed in old Siberian warehouses. After NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, the Baikonur spaceport, a Soviet-era launch pad based in Kazakhstan, was the only place on Earth that could launch manned missions to space. For years, the route to the International Space Station, the floating laboratory where research on microgravity and space is done some 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, was paved through Kazakhstan.

With no demand for space services, and only a few remaining domestic players capable of doing so, the cost of building a weather satellite or a communications satellite fell in the range between $200-$300 million. It typically fell on the big primes—massive organizations with government support and a history of military or space-related manufacturing—to build the satellites that ended up going into orbit. Only they had access to the resources and the knowledge to build satellites that could withstand the conditions of space.

It would only add insult to injury that the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the sole domestic entity that could launch anything into orbit in the United States, was also charging $380 million per launch—with no guarantee that the launch would even be a success. Not to mention, most satellites are only equipped with enough battery life to last about 15 years.  

Because they could cost over half a billion dollars apiece, organizations that did launch satellites were typically massive telecommunications organizations or national departments like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For these customers, it made the most sense to launch their satellites as far away from Earth as possible, since the farther away you were from the surface, the greater coverage you had over the planet. 

Satellites orbiting closer to Earth, at medium earth orbit, MEO, or low-earth orbit, LEO, would orbit around the Earth faster than the Earth’s natural spin. This was suboptimal for companies trying to provide a constant, reliable internet connection or satellite television to customers because such satellites would spend part of the time on the other side of the Earth. 

Instead, the best bet was to position the satellite in geostationary orbit around the Earth, or GEO. At around 36,000 kilometers up, satellites in GEO could send and receive transmissions from nearly 50% of the Earth’s surface. These satellites were also in synchronous orbit with the Earth, which meant that from the perspective of a user on the ground, the satellite would seem as though it were in a fixed position in the sky, and always accessible. Each global region typically launched their own satellites, which lived directly above their location on Earth.

Source: Satellite Today

By the 2010s, a small number of satellites provided crucial services that humans had come to rely on, including ship and plane navigation, military targeting, GPS, weather monitoring, and telecommunications capabilities. Without the ability to launch our own vehicles or personnel, we were dependent on infrastructure we had very limited ability to fix or replace should anything go wrong.

After 15 years, or whenever the satellites finally stopped working, their owners would just let them die peacefully, orbiting in geostationary orbit around Earth—forever. To this day, most of the important weather or communications satellites are technological relics. One study conducted by TelAstra showed that over 30% of satellites we rely on are already operating beyond the scheduled expiration dates.

The mindset regarding space began shifting in 2008, when SpaceX’s first orbital launch mission was hailed a success. Its Falcon 1 rocket, priced at only $7 million, became the cheapest rocket in history. An even more important milestone, however, was when SpaceX developed the first reusable rocket in 2015 with a successful launch and landing of the Falcon 9 near Port Canaveral. 

Reusable rockets changed the economic viability of launching things into orbit. Before reusable rockets, launch customers had to pay for the entire price of the rocket to launch a single payload into space. It would be like paying for the cost of an entire plane any time you wanted to travel by air—and when you arrived, the plane would be destroyed so no one else could use it.

A rocket whose cost could be amortized over dozens of trips was a significantly cheaper option. The barrier to entry fell, and after 2015, many more customers became interested in experimenting with satellites. That’s when SpaceX changed the game yet again, by rolling out a ridesharing service on its Falcon 9 space bus. The bus could take payloads of up to 200 kilograms up into space for a price of roughly $275,000 per kilogram

At this price, building satellites no longer had to be a boutique operation for the wealthy few. There was sufficient demand to begin standardizing and commodifying the process of constructing satellite buses, especially smaller satellite models. The space industry was having its Henry Ford moment, as companies like York Space Systems, Blue Canyon Technologies, and most recently, Apex Space started to roll out their own satellite versions of the Model T.

Of the 7,000+ active satellites now orbiting Earth, over half of these are communications satellites, a fifth are used for Earth observation, and the remainder serve a combination of military and scientific purposes. 

Source: GAO, Large Constellations of Satellites

Though it was once useful to launch communications satellites to geostationary orbit, that calculus no longer applies in a world where satellite launching is affordable. Plus, the closer satellites are to Earth, the lower the latency between satellites and ground stations because there’s less distance that their signals need to travel over to reach a receiver.

Rather than launching one massive satellite into geostationary orbit servicing a massive geographic area with higher latency, it became possible to launch a constellation of little satellites into low-Earth orbit, which could collectively cover the same area as one satellite up in GEO, only with a better connection. 

This is exactly the idea that SpaceX had with its Starlink program—a mission that over the next few years may deploy up to 42,000 Starlinks to create a satellite mesh capable of providing internet to any point on Earth. Since the program’s launch in 2019, SpaceX has already launched over 3,500 of the satellites into space. It should come as no surprise then that SpaceX now owns the most satellites orbiting the Earth by far.

However, SpaceX wasn’t the only company to have this idea. Amazon, OneWeb, and China’s Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation have competing programs, with plans of launching thousands of their own satellites into space to provide competing internet services. SpaceX is currently the only vertically integrated company capable of actually launching its own payload into orbit, but Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is working on developing this capability soon. 

This new generation of internet service providers is putting up a challenge to legacy cable-based internet service providers still on Earth. Even chip manufacturers are starting to catch on. Qualcomm’s CEO recently unveiled the company’s plan to diversify their mobile and laptop chips by making them able to communicate directly with satellite partners and provide their users with access to “space internet” regardless of where they are on Earth. 

However, the implications of better satellite connectivity don’t end there. John Deere recently announced that it, too, wants to make use of the coming satellite constellations to provide better connectivity for its fleet of tractors, many of which are often in inaccessible environments without internet connectivity. Tractors fully connected to the internet, and to satellite-based insights on crop growth, could bring the prospect of autonomous farming a lot closer to reality. 

Just 10 years ago, the space industry seemed like it was going nowhere. Today it’s buzzing with an exponentially growing number of satellites, creating opportunities for new businesses to service and support the thousands of vessels orbiting the planet. Even NASA has shown renewed signs of life with its announcement of the Artemis program in 2017, which aims to send more missions to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program ended and to establish a lunar base camp at the end of this decade.

After a few dark decades, we’re finally building the space economy we’ve been dreaming of for hundreds of years. 

The first satellites

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is often credited as the first to propose launching an artificial satellite. In a 1945 issue of Wireless World magazine, Clarke spelled how a man-made satellite orbiting in sync with the Earth could become a very useful tool for cross-continental communication on Earth. However, Clarke wasn’t really the first with the idea.

Visions of cosmic travels had fascinated scientists and engineers ever since Newton’s universal law of gravitation and the principles of motion helped us grasp the behavior of celestial objects. The dream of a star-faring humanity was deeply ingrained into the human imagination—so much so that, in 1895, a rural school teacher in czarist Russia named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published Dreams of Earth and Sky, a book that articulated the idea of an artificial satellite orbiting around the Earth. Tsiolkovsky became so obsessed with this idea, he wrote more books on the subjects of astrophysics, devising all kinds of ways that humans might succeed at accomplishing such a thing. In his later books, he articulated the concepts of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as rocket fuels—both of which are in use today—and he even outlined the idea of the multistage rocket.

Despite these prophetic blueprints for humanity in space, there was little interest in developing space technology until 1949, when the United States’ monopoly on nuclear weapons was undermined by the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of an atomic bomb. If the Soviets had the bomb too, it was only a matter of time until they figured out how to launch it halfway around the world. 

The 1950s was marked by both countries scrambling to develop ever more powerful rocket technology—really shuttles for transporting nukes—and in 1957 the Soviet Union shocked the world by showing it how good their rocket tech really was. On October 4, 1947, the USSR’s Sputnik 1 became the first man-made object to orbit around the Earth. Soviet astrophysicist Sergei Korolev strapped the primitive spherical satellite to the top of an intercontinental ballistic missile and launched it into orbit around the Earth. 

Though the first satellite only had enough battery life to last three weeks in space before crashing down to Earth, Americans in particular were afraid that the Soviets now had the power to spy on them, or worse. Only a few weeks after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviets sent up Sputnik 2—this time with a canine passenger named Laika. The United States’ space program had barely succeeded in launching a rocket off the ground, while the Soviet Union was already populating space with dogs.

The following year, the United States founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in response. After a series of failed attempts to get anything to launch, the United States succeeded in putting the first small satellite into orbit on January 31, 1958.

Once NASA got off the ground (literally), everything kicked into high gear. The year 1960, in particular, was a year of many firsts for American space endeavors. NASA launched the Television Infrared Observation Satellite, which could take images of Earth’s cloud formations, observe weather patterns, and allow us to see the Earth as never seen before. This was the first meteorological satellite ever launched. Though the satellite only ended up living for 78 days, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was established to take over in its footsteps.

Later that year, the US Navy also launched Transit 1B, a positioning satellite that acted as a prelude to the eventual launch of the first GPS satellites in 1967 by the US Department of Defense. The GPS system is now a 20-satellite-strong network located in medium Earth orbit. 

1960 was also the same year that the United States’ National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was established. To this day, it operates a fleet of satellites that survey activities on Earth. Using the NRO’s first spy satellite, the Corona, the United States was able to acquire information on things like the location of the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missile silos and launch pads.

As if all that wasn’t enough, that year, NASA also launched its Echo satellite, the first communications satellite whose purpose was to “echo” American radio waves down to ground stations in Britain. That way, the English could listen to American radio too! Echo did this by passively reflecting incoming radio waves from the US down to Britain, which resulted in a pretty weak signal once the radio waves went all the way up to space and back down. 

To enhance the signal, NASA engineers developed a technology called a “traveling wave tube,” which could amplify and re-emit stronger radio signals back down. The first traveling wave tube was installed on NASA’s Relay 1 satellite launched in 1962. Since then, it has become a mainstay on every communications satellite today. 

Anatomy of the modern satellite

Since the earliest missions, we’ve learned a lot about what a machine needs to survive in space for more than a few days. Space is a tough environment. There are incredible temperature swings, from as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit to over 158 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s no stable, reliable source of power. There are all kinds of high-power cosmic rays notorious for messing up how computers work in space. 

If that’s not all, other objects are flying around that pose the risk of crashing into a satellite, like asteroids or other satellites! To survive in space for over a decade, modern satellites have evolved to come equipped with the following systems:

  1. Solar and battery-powered energy: Satellites exist between the sun and the Earth, and they’re sometimes hidden behind the Earth’s shadow. As a result, they need a variety of energy options to sustain their activities in space. Nearly all satellites are equipped with high surface area solar panels that can generate electrical energy from the sun or plug into batteries when in the shade.
  2. Structural and thermal controls: Extreme temperatures can easily damage electrical equipment in space. So satellites often include radiators to cool electrical components, thermal blankets, heaters, and multi-layer insulation (the shimmery reflective material that gives satellites their classic look). 
  3. Propulsion and attitude control: Important functions for a satellite include keeping the correct orientation, staying on the correct orbit, and moving out of the way in response to an oncoming object. They need to be done using the least amount of energy possible (given satellites’ limited power supply). Clever devices like reaction wheels—which change the satellite’s orientation by changing the direction of a spinning wheel inside—help satellites maneuver without using fuel. Other satellites use magnetic torquers that help them stay aligned with Earth’s magnetic field. Most satellites are also equipped with thrusters or tiny engines, which help them perform larger maneuvers.

Challenges and opportunities for satellite technology

As our ambitions in space grow, so do the challenges we have to contend with. Below are some of the most impactful emerging frontiers in space technology: 

1.Space lasers will provide more bandwidth

The more we’ve come to rely on Earth observation, the better our remote sensing systems have gotten. Synthetic aperture radar (SAR), for instance, is an impressive new technology employed on many modern observation satellites. SAR emits radar pulses, which can travel through difficult atmospheric conditions, to eventually produce a high-resolution image of the Earth. However, the size of the data files generated by SAR systems are too big to be effectively shared via standard radio frequencies, which satellites currently use to communicate with ground stations and uplink or downlink data.

One remedy is to switch to higher-frequency wavelengths, which can encode and transmit more information per second—like optical light. For a few years now, NASA and other organizations like SpaceX have been experimenting and making breakthroughs on developing new protocols that can encode information in optical wavelengths and transmit them through lasers in space!

Initially, doing this seemed monumentally hard. Optical lasers emit very narrow, precision beams of light, much smaller than the radio waves in use now. Positioning those lasers onto their targets—especially from satellites moving at a speed of 17,000 mph in low-Earth orbit—is very difficult. 

Finally, after years of tinkering with laser communications protocols, NASA will be rolling out its own optical communications systems, which will be able to relay information between satellites and ground stations much faster. NASA hopes that by the time its astronauts return to the moon, NASA will be able to downlink high-definition footage of the event, rather than the grainy, black-and-white video we recall from the Apollo 11 mission.

Companies building hefty satellite constellations, like SpaceX with Starlink, are also eager to use laser communications to more quickly transmit information between satellites. Doing this well will enable these constellations to determine the best routing paths for data packets, something unfeasible with radio frequencies.

Though the technology for space laser communications is maturing, the current implementation is a patchwork as NASA, SpaceX, and others working in this field all have their own optical communications protocols (which are not mutually interoperable). It remains to be seen whether this new technology will need to be standardized, or what solutions will make optical communication interoperable with space and ground stations.

2.Making launches more affordable

It costs SpaceX somewhere in the ballpark of $2,750 to send 1 kg into space on its Falcon 9. However, SpaceX’s forthcoming Starship is planning to bring that cost down to just $100. Republic Capital, a prolific investor in space tech and SpaceX, believes that Starship is likely to change the world. 

In its 2022 report on space tech, Republic Capital writes that not having to worry about mass and size constraints anymore will mean manufacturers can become even more imaginative with satellite design. Rather than optimizing for the lightest possible satellite, they can turn their focus to building increasingly capable satellites.

Of course, Starship’s real goal is to eventually become a shuttle for the solar system—capable of delivering cargo to destinations as exotic as the moon and someday Mars.

3.Cleaning up space debris

Though we’ve gotten really good at putting things into orbit, we still don’t have much of a plan for getting things out of orbit. Increasingly, this is going to be a problem. There’s already more space junk orbiting the Earth than functioning, active satellites. The more crowded space gets, the higher chance of a collision destroying or damaging the equipment we send up there. 

In the late 1970s, NASA scientist Donald Kessler—who was concerned about the problem of space debris—pointed out that collisions in space will produce debris. As a result, they’ll increase the probability of even more collisions until we enter a phase of runaway space disaster. That feared phenomenon is known as Kessler Syndrome.

Given the number of independent entities operating satellites, it’s difficult to coordinate during close collision calls. Emerging space startups are tackling the problem of space communication and satellite navigation systems. One of these is called Privateer, a new venture co-founded by Steve Wozniak. Its mission is to offer greater visibility into the location of space debris. One of its forthcoming products, called Resslek, will offer a management service for satellite operators, alerting them when their equipment is on a crash course with another orbiting object.

4.Commercial space science

In 2022, NASA announced that the International Space Station will be retiring in 2031. It’s a big deal because the International Space Station is currently humanity’s only space-based laboratory. Built piece by piece in space, across numerous manned missions beginning in 1998, the ISS reflects the contributions of over a dozen countries. 

The ability of scientists to conduct research in microgravity has unlocked insights on many subjects: the formation of proteins in low-gravity environments, growth of stem cells, the nature of Bose-Einstein condensates (which are widely considered to be a fifth state of matter), water purification techniques, and more. In 2022, the ISS published a document called Benefits for Humanity, which enumerated the experiments that have impacted humanity most. The incredible value of such research is why China, in 2021, launched its own space station, called Tiangong station, which will continue expanding in the years to come.

Losing the ISS wouldn’t only be a setback for science but for economic opportunity. On the back of its findings, dozens of new ideas with commercial potential have been devised. They range from floating utility stations that could provide Earth with crucial resources to space factories that can manufacture carbon nanotubes, fiberglass cables, organic tissue, and more. 

Luckily, the United States is focused on encouraging several commercial players to help send up space stations of their own. Axiom Space is working on building a proprietary science laboratory to act as a successor to the ISS. NASA has also tapped Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin (the last of which is designing an Orbital Reef to help establish commercial destinations in space).

After decades of disappointment, we’re dreaming about space once again. A more robust presence in space will have many implications for the rest of us back home, from the emergence of new industries (like manufacturing in microgravity) to the destruction of old terrestrial ones (like cable monopolies). Of course, the further out we go, the more problems we’ll need to contend with, from clearing up space debris to figuring out how to service existing spacecraft better. 

With technology, problems often become the source of opportunity, and space is teeming with both. 

Author bio: Anna-Sofia Lesiv is a writer at venture capital firm Contrary, where she published an earlier version of this piece. She graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics and has spent time at Bridgewater, Founders Fund, and 8VC.

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@nadavgeva4 10 months ago

"The cost of sending anything into orbit was astronomical" 😉

@dead6oy 9 months ago

Great post! Just one typo though. "October 4, 1947, the USSR’s Sputnik 1 became the first man-made object to orbit around the Earth." This should be October 4, 1957.

@blockheadbooks 8 months ago

Seriously!? “In 2008, United States had lost both the capability and the desire to go to space.”

Except that in 2008, NASA awarded the Commercial Resupply Services contracts in excess of $4 billion dollars for which SpaceX received $1.6 billion to develop its rockets and cargo missions…
And also, NASA was in development for the Ares program prepping its 1-X launch vehicle for October 2009.

NASA’s hope to stimulate the private market and give companies a place to go and start up funds is finally 15 years later actually happening and getting attention. Don’t discredit that just for a hook on a poorly written story.

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