In the past few days, news outlets have repeated the South China Morning Post’s story of China’s plans to deploy nearly 13,000 satellites into low Earth orbit. As an observation, the image at the article’s beginning is of a Russian GLONASS navigation satellite, not Starlink.
According to the story’s author, the constellation project code-name, “GW,” will be China’s attempt to suppress Starlink somehow. According to interviewed researchers, the 13,000 satellites will be deployed into orbit quickly and “...ensure that our country has a place in low orbit and prevent the Starlink constellation from excessively pre-empting low-orbit resources”.
Later in the article, the researchers also came up with another way to deal with Starlink:
“They added that new weapons, including lasers and high-power microwaves, would be developed and used to destroy Starlink satellites that pass over China or other sensitive regions.”
It sounds fascinating: a nation bringing together resources and people in a campaign to take out satellites owned by a company even as it plans to install its version in orbit. Or is it concerning that a nation’s researchers publicly discuss destroying a LEO broadband competitor’s property? Those lasers and high-power microwaves are a very public tell, letting everyone know that China probably already had developed/is developing those weapons to deal with U.S. military satellites.
Also, what are those “other sensitive regions?”
The idea of China dealing with Starlink is a familiar one. In mid-2022, the SCMP published a story of the nation’s military coming up with ways to destroy Starlink because of national security. An opinion piece, this time from China Military Online, provided other rationales for China’s Starlink concerns. I distilled them down to the following:
- Starlink is expanding its constellation to 42,000 satellites
- SpaceX has a “strong military background.”
- SpaceX cooperates with the military
- Starlink satellite busses can be mounted with nearly anything military
- Starlink provides broadband communications anywhere
- Starlink could become an independent internet
The SCMP and CMO articles were a response to Starlink’s successful use in Ukraine, which foiled the Russian military’s jamming attempts. I analyzed those concerns at the time (for those wondering about my observations). However, I also noted:
“But Ukraine and its implications for the U.S. military are just the most immediate reason China is publicly worrying about Starlink. The other reason may be how quickly Starlink was deployed and became operational. And this is why Starlink, in particular, is the target of China’s worry. As noted earlier, other much better-financed contractors provide plenty of capability to the U.S. military already. But China’s leadership didn’t trot out ULA, Boeing, or Lockheed as companies to worry about.”
Nor have the researchers appeared to worry about OneWeb, another LEO broadband constellation in orbit. They also lack concern regarding Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which will be deploying a few satellites on the United Launch Alliance’s newest rocket, the Vulcan, soon(-ish).
The 12,992-satellite project nor its “code-name” are anything new, either. Both were mentioned in a NASASpaceflight forum at the end of 2020. It turns out that GW is shorthand for GuoWang (national network)–although that name seems to be ever-changing, too. It’s tempting to view the GuoWang project more like Europe’s European LEO communications constellation, except on a grander scale (and perhaps more likely to be completed).
Wishful Researching vs. Statistics
That’s the question, though, isn’t it? How realistic is it to expect the China Satellite Network Group (China SatNet) to manufacture and deploy nearly 13,000 satellites before SpaceX finishes deploying a similar number (or continues deploying about 30,000 more)? It’s not beyond the pale for the company to have access to a mega factory that can quickly crank out 13,000 satellites.
However, the researchers are introducing requirements creep into the original designs of those satellites. They do this as they mention adding capabilities, such as surveillance instrumentation (to watch Starlink satellites) and ways to suppress Starlink satellites. That requirements creep will slow the building of those satellites down as China SatNet tests and chooses the best instruments to fulfill them. That decision will impact the company’s choice of satellite bus, power requirements, etc. SpaceX got around this by radically changing the Starlink designs after the prototypes had been deployed. It tailored its satellites to fit as many as possible within the Falcon 9’s faring. It’s not clear that China SatNet will be as agile.
Beyond the satellites is China’s launch capability. Many hands have been wrung when that nation’s annual launch numbers are mentioned. Truly, China’s space industry has come a long way, conducting 61 launch attempts in 2022. SpaceX conducted 61 launches as well, all of which were successful. However, significant differences exist between the launch capabilities of China’s various rocket families and the Falcon 9-based systems (I attempted to explain that here).
The mass and configuration of China SatNet’s GW satellites will dictate what launch system they can use. If it is similar to SpaceX’s current Starlink satellite version, with a mass of nearly 310 kg, then there aren’t many good options–not if the company wants to deploy thousands before 2027.
While that mass is a guess for a GW satellite, it is a helpful number to demonstrate the challenges China SatNet faces in deploying its constellation. For example, China’s most-used rocket in 2022 was the CZ-2D (launching 15 times). That rocket can only lift 1,300 kg to orbit, which might equal four GW satellites with comparable Starlink mass. That means 3,250 CZ-2D launches must be conducted to deploy the whole constellation. At a rate of 15 dedicated launches per year…well…it would take over 200 years to do that. Should a GW satellite’s mass be more than that of a Starlink satellite, that potentially increases the number of launches and time required.
Another example is if SatNet selects the CZ-5 family (the most upmass-capable rocket in China), that would allow for more GW satellites to be deployed. Based on a Starlink equivalent mass, it could (theoretically) deploy 80 satellites simultaneously (vs. the 50-60 Starlinks on a Falcon 9). But it takes a while to build and launch the CZ-5, which launched only twice in 2022. Also, the CZ-5 is used for prestige projects, such as the space station and probes. It might be politically tricky to divert CZ-5 launches for the GW project. However, were it to be used, then based on those current statistics, it would take China SatNet over 80 years to deploy its entire GW constellation. Both options would require China SatNet to replace satellite failures and those satellites exceeding their operating lives.
While many rockets from commercial and government groups in China are “on the horizon,” like Starship, the Ariane 6, New Glenn, and Vulcan, they are currently the mirages that looking at the horizon sometimes introduces. They haven’t launched into orbit yet. Maybe they, like the Vulcan, will gradually coalesce into something tangible. Even if a new rocket with equivalent/better Falcon 9 capability were launched from China today, it wouldn’t immediately meet China SatNet’s needs. Based on China’s program history, both government and commercial, it would take some time for that rocket to achieve the launch rates the Falcon 9 is achieving in 2023. Until that happens, China’s rocket inventory and launch rate don’t point to an ability to deploy a constellation of 13,000 satellites quickly.
The BRI Business Case and Internal Competitors
Even the business case that the researchers are providing for GW seems untethered. Almost all of their rationales hinge on the constellation being the anti-Starlink and stopping a perceived orbital claim-jumping (which the ITU might dispute). But they provide nothing (in the article) about how a global LEO broadband constellation from China will serve customers, whether civil, military, or consumers.
Those reasons do exist. This excellent article explains how a China-run LEO broadband constellation will significantly support its Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, it will help to more closely bind nations receiving support from China, such as Egypt.
It might, as demonstrated in Ukraine, make it more difficult for other nations to monitor China’s government and military communications. So it makes sense for the government in China to push the idea of a LEO broadband constellation. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense commercially, primarily because there is too much baggage with using a broadband network under China’s thumb. Perhaps the BRI nations will supply some profits, but the point of the GW constellation is probably not profit, only control, and influence.
The story might also be meant for internal consumption. The “Starlink=Bad” narrative is intended to scare China’s citizens and politicians so much that they turn away from “legacy” geosynchronous communication satellites. The companies manufacturing those satellites are likely reluctant to relinquish the SATCOM market to GW. Those Starlink concerns would make the political and security environment in China more favorable to building and deploying GW.
The SCMP’s headline and story did the job–it hyped up the idea of China SatNet deploying a constellation of 12,992 satellites, gaining internet traction. It’s not impossible for China SatNet to eventually deploy such a constellation, but the narrative and timeline don’t appear realistic. It’s not clear that there’s a satellite factory in that nation that can build them quickly. Also, none of the nation’s rockets in its current inventory will allow the company to deploy them rapidly. Based on the activity in that country for developing a reusable rocket, that might change, but it will take longer than four years to do so.