Op-ed | Two more rules for building a megaconstellation

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Miniaturization and standardization of commercial low-cost, high-performance components have enabled a class of smaller space vehicles whose cost of development, manufacturing, and launch is three orders of magnitude lower than what used to be just a few years ago. To compensate for the inevitable performance gap at the spacecraft level, we can now coordinate the operations of hundreds of units into megaconstellations whose overall performance — especially in terms of temporal resolution — is astonishing. This architecture is the way to go to establish global infrastructures that will revolutionize fields like telecommunications, remote sensing, Internet of Things, agriculture, logistics, and many more. 

While the concept of constellation is not new, the challenges connected to operating hundreds of spacecraft at the same time are yet to be fully understood. An article published in the June 10, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine lists “Three rules for building a megaconstellation”:

Rule No. 1: build new tech fast

Rule No. 2: automate selectively

Rule No. 3: leave room for failure

This set of rules highlights a major shift in an industry where the timeframe between mission design and start of operations used to reach a decade, an industry where hardware specifications were written in stone in early design phases and never questioned afterward, and an industry where a failure of a minor sub-component could cause a billion-dollar loss. SpaceNews’ list outlines a design approach focused on the short-term sustainability of the constellation.

I believe we should add a couple rules to this list to ensure long-term business durability in space. I’m glad to notice that the operators of some of the most demanding constellations are already taking them into account.

Rule No. 4: as long as your tech is in orbit, it is your responsibility

The performance revolution of small satellites — cubesats in particular — have introduced the concept of “partial failure” in an industry where mission success used to be an “all-or-nothing” matter. The recent launch of the first batch of Starlink satellites demonstrates that nowadays it is possible to launch 60 spacecraft, lose a few of them, and still claim a victory because the performance data and lessons learned gathered from their failure far outweigh the cost connected to their loss. This is probably a valid example of Rule No. 3 “leave room for failure.”

However, at a time when a dozen companies are planning to populate Earth’s orbit with competing megaconstellations, a 5 percent mortality rate — still to be demonstrated — can rapidly produce several hundred defunct objects drifting along business viable orbits, raising the cost of operations of the remaining operational satellites, jeopardizing the business model, and increasing collision risk for everyone. 

While the design of a constellation can tolerate a 5 percent mortality rate, it is essential that mission planners specify a way to get those failed satellites out of the way, whether with a backup decommissioning system, an active debris removal (ADR) mission, or what I believe would be the more effective solution from an economic and business point of view: a mixed strategy that combines orbit clearance via a small, independent, and reliable decommissioning system capable to move the defunct satellite out of the way, and a satellite design ready for ADR. Besides the moral imperative to leave the orbit clean, the cost of these solutions is likely to repay itself several times in terms of operational cost savings and increased spacecraft lifetime.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rule “Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age” already investigates some forms of economic incentive to satellite operators that adopt a decommissioning system on their satellites. 

Besides that, the satellites of some of the megaconstellations mentioned in the article have enough propellant to allow end-of-life disposal in one-tenth of the time currently required by the IADC’s 25-year guideline, are designed to be serviced and removed by ADR, and have room on board for independent and autonomous decommissioning systems to be used for orbit clearance.

Rule No. 5: your mission is over only after proper decommissioning

With Rule No. 2, “Automate selectively,” SpaceNews describes SpaceX’s and OneWeb’s plan to partially automate operations, with emphasis on automatic collision avoidance. While this is undoubtedly a smart move, I believe that responsible operators should also do their best to prevent a massive creation of further defunct satellites that could challenge even the best automatic system of this kind, jeopardizing, once again, the economy of the space business.

Disposal into a graveyard orbit has been an essential part of GEO missions for decades, justified by the finite nature of this precious orbit. In the era of megaconstellations, the polar orbit region is the new GEO, a strategic resource whose clearance is a common responsibility. Therefore, no megaconstellation should be built without giving proper thought to end-of-life disposal.

Final Thoughts

As NewSpace companies, we are pioneering a new way of using space for business. The earliest NewSpace entities have been changing the traditional paradigms on many fronts: design, manufacturing, performance, and business model. The most recent ones are enabling the economic sustainability of the space business, offering services like orbital transportation and servicing. 

Most of the industrial and business sectors on Earth feature a similar value chain. While the concept of a self-sustaining “cradle-to-cradle” design is making more and more economic sense for businesses on Earth, in space we are not yet systematically applying the “cradle-to-graveyard” approach. 

We are in a transitional phase where the space market is experiencing an unbounded exponential growth. While it may be too early to promote the “cradle-to-cradle” design approach — at least from an economic point of view — it is definitely the right approach that we, the NewSpace companies, should aim at. In the meantime, “cradle-to-graveyard” is already a convenient first step. 

In the words of University of California professor Carlo M. Cipolla’s famous essay “The Five Universal Laws of Human Stupidity,” doing nothing is like “damaging others while generating losses for ourselves.” 

Luca Rossettini is CEO of D-Orbit, a Como, Italy-based company whose products and services cover the entire lifecycle of a space mission, including mission analysis and design, engineering, manufacturing, integration, testing, launch, and end-of-life decommissioning.