HELSINKI — The first satellite for a second planned Chinese low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation has been produced in new facilities in Shanghai.

A new generation flat-panel satellite rolled off the assembly at the G60 digital satellite production factory in Shanghai’s Songjiang District Tuesday, Dec. 27, according to Chinese press reports.

The satellite is the first for the G60 Starlink low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation. An initial 108 satellites of a total of around 12,000 G60 Starlink satellites are to be launched across 2024.

The facilities are managed by Shanghai Gesi Aerospace Technology (Genesat), a state-owned company established in 2022 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Innovation Academy for Microsatellites (IAMCAS) and Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology.

Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology was the Chinese side of the former KLEO Connect constellation project. That Chinese-European joint venture ended in acrimony and ongoing lawsuits.  Genesat recently raised funds through investment vehicles under both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanghai government. 

Documentation filed with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in April likely pertaining to the G60 Starlink project sets out plans for 36 polar orbital planes, each filled with 36 satellites, totaling 1,296 spacecraft. The satellites would operate in the Ku, Q and V bands.

The satellites are described as low-cost, high-throughput, highly-reliable, low-latency and modularized. The overall system, like that of SpaceX’s Starlink and its competitors, aims to provide broadband access services to users around the world.

Shanghai space ecosystem

The satellite manufacturing center entered service this year. It is to be capable of producing 300 satellites per year. It was also stated to lower the cost of a single satellite by 35 percent, though without specifying a reference point.

The project is linked to the wider Yangtze River Delta G60 Science and Technology Innovation Corridor. The project also falls under the umbrella of Shanghai government plans announced in October to foster a commercial space ecosystem within the city by 2025. The initiative aims to foster an end-to-end ecosystem encompassing satellites, launch vehicles, related applications and infrastructure. 

Targets include building capacity for an annual output of 50 commercial rockets and 600 commercial satellites. This indicates further either extant or future production capacity along with the Genesat facilities.

These new facilities also feed into a surge in Chinese small satellite manufacturing capacity in recent years. State-owned entities under both CASC and CASIC have established new centers, along with commercial firms such as GalaxySpace. IAMCAS is also active in this area. Added to this is the emergence of ASPACE in Hong Kong this year.

A second Chinese megaconstellation

G60 Starlink is the second low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation, following the establishment of the China Satellite Network Group in 2021 to run the national 13,000 satellite Guowang (SatNet) project.

However a number of experimental satellite internet spacecraft, apparently for Guowang, have been launched across 2023. It is unclear which, if any, megaconstellation will take primacy according to Chinese national policy. 

Meanwhile China has been looking at how to get large batches of satellites into orbit, particularly in terms of getting the vast numbers of satellites into orbit to meet deadlines set by the ITU to guarantee use of associated frequencies.

Possibilities include using the Long March 5B rocket with a Yuanzheng-2 upper stage. The expendable Long March 8, optimized for mass production, could also help get Guowang or other constellations flying.

China is also building new commercial launch pads on Hainan island to alleviate a bottleneck in access to launch. These will start becoming operational in 2024. 

Global implications

The emergence of competing communications megaconstellations brings potential for enhanced global internet connectivity, particularly in remote and underserved areas. This development could bring numerous benefits in terms of economic activity and global health. It could also have geopolitical implications related to national security, surveillance, and technological dominance. 

There are also unresolved issues relating to space traffic management. These include thorny issues of international coordination, setting rules for collision avoidance and deorbiting satellites. The proliferation of projects, launches and satellites in LEO also heightens issues of orbital space debris.

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...