HONG KONG — Chinese space and defense contractor CASIC says it will begin building a constellation of 300 satellites in very-low Earth orbit late this year.

The very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) constellation is to consist of 192 satellites by 2027 to provide users with space information services every half an hour and be expanded to 300 satellites by 2030, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) revealed at the China Commercial Aerospace Forum held in the city of Wuhan earlier this month.

CASIC plans to launch its first of its planned VLEO verification satellites in December. The first satellite will be geared towards demonstrating and verifying key technologies including VLEO orbital flight, high resolution Earth imaging, intelligent processing, and direct data transmission to user terminals.

VLEO refers to an altitude of 150 to 300 kilometers. At such low altitudes atmospheric drag means orbits are not stable and decay rapidly without regular use of propulsion to boost altitude. However satellites in such orbits could have advantages over those in traditional higher orbits. 

“The VLEO communications and sensing integrated constellation, taking the natural advantages of shorter distance, low latency and low path loss, forges a constellation and application system that is small but excellent, fast and intelligent, and requires a large quantity of satellites but is cheap,” CCTV quoted Zhang Nan, chief designer of the constellation at CASIC’s General Department of Space Engineering.

The CASIC constellation will use intelligent algorithms, direct satellite-to-satellite and low latency satellite-to-Earth communications. 

“It’s space infrastructure that can offer users one-stop services covering sensing, transmission and computing,” Zhang said.

CASIC is engaged in a range of space-related programs, including launch services, satellite production, an Internet of Things narrowband constellation and a spaceplane project. 

These projects are described as commercial and are separate from those of its sister giant state-owned conglomerate CASC, which is the country’s main space contractor for civil and military-related programs.

Chinese commercial firm C-Space launched what was described as China’s first VLEO satellite July 22. Qiankun-1 flew on a Galactic Energy Ceres-1 solid rocket and will test hyperspectral, optical and image processing payloads.

However it joined another payload in an initial 502 by 486-kilometer altitude inclined by 96 degrees, according to U.S. Space Force tracking data.

Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews via email that China pursuing such capabilities and testing new systems was a natural progression.

“The scale of the Chinese space programme and related political support favors and underpins a comprehensive capability development across a wide array of concepts. This can reasonably have a positive impact on innovation, including if multiple such avenues of action do not reach a successful end, due to whatever reason.”

“The interest in VLEO fits the narrative of exploring and developing a breadth of initiatives, seeking to develop niche capabilities and expertise, which was already shown by China in other domains – in satellite applications, launchers, or exploration,” says Hrozensky.

VLEO satellites could potentially have a number of benefits. “The available information suggests that VLEO can offer added value for both communications and remote sensing missions through impacts on technological features and functional characteristics that drive down the cost,” says Hrozensky. 

These include lower power demands, a lower radiation environment, smaller and less complex sensors, and lower requirements in terms of data transfer and launch requirements.

“The underlying problem, as usual, lies in overcoming the various technical challenges in such a way that would make the desired activity reliable, safe, and profitable in case of commercial plans. For now, VLEO has not yet comprehensively passed such tests.”

Global remote sensing capabilities including higher resolution, more frequent revisits, and faster transmission speeds were noted as key space infrastructure in China’s 14th Five Year Plan, covering the period 2021-2025, according to Science and Technology Daily.

Elsewhere, VLEO concepts have emerged in the U.S. and Europe in recent years. American firms Skeyeon, Earth Observant and Albedo have raised money for VLEO satellite plans, while the European Union funded the “Discoverer” research program to investigate deploying Earth observation satellites in much lower altitudes than usual.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...