This breakthrough might make satellite coverage more affordable than ever

This new breakthrough might be even bigger than SpaceX’s plans with Starlink, as it seems like it is possible to obtain almost full Earth coverage with the use of just four satellites. Many constellations take use of dozens of satellites to build up to full coverage, Cornell University researchers might have just discovered an alternative that requires far fewer satellites. 

The team harnessed the kind of forces that usually degrade satellites and managed to create a design that can return 86% coverage over a 24 hour period and 95% coverage over a 48 hour period. The research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and involved the collaboration from a set of institutions and was published last Friday in the Nature Communications journal.

This research chimed in just at the right moment, as the trend in satellites moves toward increasing the number of devices instead of decreasing it. At the moment there are about 5,000 satellites in orbit. SpaceX has requested permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites as part of their Starlink initiative to provide high speed, low latency coverage all around the globe. However, many astronomers have made it clear that the initial batches of satellites from Starlink are already interfering with work.

The base of the study

The starting point for the research is a continuation of the work of researcher Jon E. Draim, who speculated back in the 80’s that a quartet of satellites is capable to provide full coverage. 

Replacing Starlink

This new finding is unlikely to replace traditional constellations, unfortunately. The new project proposed a high altitude to take advantage of certain forces, thus drastically lowering the costs when compared to traditional constellations. This could provide full-Earth coverage to more teams than ever. However, Starlink plans to operate at a low altitude of only 550 kilometers to decrease latency.  


The project analyzed how it could take advantage of existing forces to boost coverage.

The new satellites are meant to float at high elevation, thus requiring a small amount of propellant and avoiding other existing satellites. The designs were tested through a simulation that was done at the Blue Waters supercomputer of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that was capable to simulate between 300 and 400 years of operations in about one month. It discovered that the lifespan of satellites could triple. It was also proved that near-full coverage could actually be achieved with only four satellites and coverage gaps for low-priority areas could last 80 minutes maximum. 

Patrick Reed, engineering professor of the Cornell University stated:

“There might be missions where you absolutely need coverage of everywhere on Earth, and in those cases, you would just have to use more satellites or networked sensors or hybrid platforms.” 

Who could benefit from this research?

The findings of the research might prove useful to a company or even a country with limited resources in order to develop a constellation with very little investment (when compared to alternative solutions).

“Even one satellite can cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, depending on what sensors are on it and what its purpose is. So having a new platform that you can use across the existing and emerging missions is pretty neat,” professor Reed added. 

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