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MARCH 2021

Mega Constellations Of US Spacecraft And Advanced Means Of Their Launch


Mega Constellations Of US Spacecraft And Advanced Means Of Their Launch


Written by Captain 1st Rank D. Dlugotsky, candidate of technical sciences; Captain V. Duga, candidate of technical sciences; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review 2020 #10, translated by Mona Lita exclusively for SouthFront

The development of weapons, including high-precision weapons, follows the path of integrating space assets into the control loop. In addition, space systems based on small spacecraft (SSC) weighing up to 500 kg are currently being actively developed. Analysis of the dynamics of launches of such systems all over the world shows that their share among the total number of launched spacecraft is steadily increasing (over the past ten years, from 35 to 81%). The use of small spacecraft makes it possible to form satellite constellations (SC) of tens, hundreds and even thousands of satellites. For example, the plans of SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corporation declare the deployment of SC from 12 thousand SSC. According to the foreign classification, such SCs in which the number of devices exceeds 100 units are designated by the prefix “mega” (MSC).

As part of the MSC programs, SpaceX, Planet Labs, Spir Global and One Web are launching Star-Link spacecraft – communications, Dove – Earth remote sensing, Lemur-2 – meteorology and One Web – communications (Internet). As of April 2020, the following were launched: 360 spacecraft – Starlink, 306 – Dove, 115 – Lemur-2 and 71 – One Web 1.

Table 1. Main performance characteristics of small spacecraft from orbital mega constellations

Mega Constellations Of US Spacecraft And Advanced Means Of Their Launch

Click to see the full-size image

Such companies as Teleset, Amazon, Satellogic, Swarm Technologies and others are also working on the creation of MSC.

In addition to these programs conducted by civilian companies, there are US Department of Defense programs that create such constellations. For example, in January 2020 the Space Development Agency (SDA) announced the creation of an MSC to solve the problems of detecting ballistic missile launches (National Defense Space Architecture). The agency plans to deploy several MSCs at an altitude of 800-1200 km. As well-known tactical and technical characteristics for the spacecraft being developed, the following requirements are highlighted: for mass – hundreds of kilograms and a period of active existence – 5 years.

The total number of craft in constellations can reach several thousand. However, the specified program is at the stage of formation, and MSCs of civilian companies are already operating in low-earth orbit, some of which are already providing services.

The first and most obvious advantage of using mega-constellations, as opposed to the satellite constellations deployed at present, is the coverage of the entire earth’s surface, therefore the listed companies declare the global nature of the services provided through their MSCs. Simulation results show that to create an SC capable of global coverage of the earth’s surface, it is necessary that about 120 spacecraft be in a near-circular orbit with an altitude of 500 km. The Planet Labs company, which has an MSC of 150 spacecraft in orbit, signed a contract with the US National Aerospace Intelligence Agency (NRO – National Reconnaissance Office) on October 15, 2019 to sell images of the earth’s surface from its Dove spacecraft. SpaceX also does not hide the fact that they would like to see the US Air Force as their main customer. There is information about trials to evaluate the capabilities of the Starlink SC under the Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program in 2019. According to foreign sources, in 2021 there is a plan to equip the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Armed Forces with means of communication, receiving traffic from the MSC spacecraft.

The miniaturization of spacecraft and a decrease in their mass influenced the means of their launching. The launch of the small spacecraft for the formation of the exhaust gas is carried out both by separate launch vehicles (LV) (the Starlink spacecraft – the Falcon-9 launch vehicle (Falcon-9), the One Web spacecraft – the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle and as associated loads (“Lemur-2” and “Dove”). These are mainly medium and heavy launch vehicles, but to increase the launch efficiency, the use of ultra-light vehicles is the promising new direction. According to Northrop-Grumman analysts, the world is currently developing such missiles in more than a hundred projects.

In the USA, launch vehicles such as the “Electron”, “Vector-R” and “Astra” are distinguished promising models.

The most successful project is the creation of the “Electron” launch vehicle by the “Rocketlab” company. The rocket was put into operation in 2017, and by the end of this year, the number of launches carried out with its help should exceed three dozen.

DARPA – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency organized a competition. For this purpose, a launch vehicle was created, the launch of which is possible from any spaceport with high efficiency. As part of the competition, 18 companies had to submit projects of launch vehicles capable of two launches within two weeks from two launch sites. In the course of the competition, the state (represented by the Ministry of Defense) amps up the participants with a monetary reward (2 million for the first successful launch and 10 million dollars for the second).

Among the finalists of the competition were launch vehicles “Astra”, “Vector-R”, the firms “Vector Space”, “Launcher One” of the “Virgin Orbit” company.

In 2017, two suborbital launches of the Vector-R LV were carried out, which were recognized as successful, and in 2018, the Astra Space company performed two partially successful suborbital launches of the Astra LV prototypes.

In 2019, the launch tests of the Launcher One air launch vehicle were carried out. The first flight test of the rocket, which took place on May 25, 2020, ended in failure.

Table 2. Main performance characteristics of promising ultra-light launch vehicles

Mega Constellations Of US Spacecraft And Advanced Means Of Their Launch

Click to see the full-size image

Thus, in the future, the MSC will make it possible to provide communications, navigation, space reconnaissance data, meteorological information, etc., to the troops directly in the theater of operations, including at the tactical level. The armed forces in possession of weapons systems built with the participation of these groups will have a number of undoubted advantages over other armed forces that do not have access to MSC data. But when creating them, it is necessary to solve a number of problematic issues, such as control of a large number of spacecraft, utilization of those that have failed, delay in data transmission, and many others. In addition, according to a number of activities carried out by the US Department of Defense, it can be concluded that there is difficulty in the practical application of the target effect obtained from the MSC LV. However, there is no doubt that the future belongs to them.

For all spacecraft, the number of successfully launched vehicles is reflected, excluding partially successful and emergency ones.




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