Enlarge / Greg Wyler in February 2019 when he was at OneWeb.Getty Images | Washington Post
A company led by satellite-industry veteran Greg Wyler says it plans to launch about 100,000 small communication satellites into low Earth orbit. The company, E-Space, yesterday announced that it received a $50 million investment and that it will launch its first test satellites next month, with "mass production... slated for 2023."
E-Space said it has "filings in hand for potentially over 100,000 secure communication satellites," but there are suggestions that the company wants to launch over 300,000 satellites. Prime Movers Lab, which led the $50 million investment round, said that E-Space's network will have "up to hundreds of thousands of secure communication satellites" and described the devices as "micro-satellites."
E-Space said its platform will "help governments and large companies build space-based applications in a capital-light manner" for uses "ranging from secure communications to managing remote infrastructure." E-Space says its satellites will use a peer-to-peer communication model, and the company's website describes the plan as a "multi-application cloud server in space... powered by E-Space's rapidly scalable optical 5G mesh network."
E-Space's announcement said the $50 million investment fully funds a "'Beta 1' launch of its first test satellites in March 2022 as well as its second 'Beta 2' launch later this year." E-Space "is composed of two independent entities" based in France and the US. Wyler, E-Space's founder and chairman, previously founded OneWeb and O3b Networks. OneWeb exited bankruptcy in November 2020 and is launching broadband satellites, but Wyler is no longer involved with the company.
Satellites “designed to clean space”
E-Space claims its satellites will help solve the growing space debris problem by "capturing" debris the satellites collide with—although one expert told Ars that the system is unlikely to capture any large space debris.
The company's announcement said its satellites will be "designed to minimize the debris from objects they hit and capture debris they contact to prevent further collisions." The satellites have smaller cross-sections than those in other constellations, making them "much less vulnerable to collision," E-Space said.
"Like oysters in the river that filter the river and clean it, our satellites are the first to be designed to clean space," Wyler told the Financial Times in an article published yesterday. "The more satellites we have, the cleaner space will be."
Wyler also told the FT that E-Space satellites "will be designed to 'crumple' rather than break apart when struck," the report said. "They will also 'entrain' any debris they encounter and automatically deorbit when a certain amount has been collected." E-Space's announcement said its plan calls for satellites that are "designed to fail into a high-drag configuration where they passively, and quickly, deorbit" and "fully demise upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere."
Design is apparently in the early stages, and it's unclear which capabilities will be included in the first test satellites that E-Space plans to launch.
Satellites unlikely to capture large debris
E-Space's claim that it will clean space in the process of adding 100,000 or more satellites into orbit will likely invite skepticism, at least until the company provides details on its technology. Brian Weeden, who researches space debris and is director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, told Ars that while his only knowledge of E-Space's plans is what the company has announced publicly, he thinks it is unlikely that the satellites would be able to capture debris of any significant size.
"While I appreciate [Wyler's] concern about orbital debris, I suspect that their 'cleaning' will be limited to collecting some of the very small pieces of debris that are floating around space. Probably stuff less than a millimeter in size, as trying to grab anything bigger could pose a threat to the satellite. That's helpful, but only in addressing a very small part of the orbital debris problem," Weeden told us.
E-Space told Ars that "each satellite's cross-sectional area will be below 0.1 square meters" but didn't provide details on the debris-capturing capability.
Besides debris and collisions, there have been problems for astronomers from the expanding number of satellites, particularly from SpaceX's Starlink broadband service. Astronomers have observed growing numbers of Starlink satellite tracks on images from the Zwicky Transient Facility at Caltech's Palomar Observatory. SpaceX has permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites and is seeking a license to launch an additional 30,000.
100,000 satellites—or 327,000?
While 100,000 was the number of satellites given in yesterday's announcement, there are indications that the amount could ultimately be a few hundred thousand. Wyler was previously reported to be part of a 327,000-satellite plan from Rwanda, and E-Space appears to be related to that project. "E-Space has all the licenses needed to be able to deliver the service on multiple frequencies," Wyler is quoted as saying to the Financial Times. "They had been acquired through Rwanda, which last year applied to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva to license more than 300,000 satellites. The Rwandan government was an original investor in OneWeb."
When asked if the constellation will be closer to 100,000 or 327,000 satellites, E-Space told Ars that it "has filed for a variety of constellations within its mesh network. We have a large capacity but will only build what is prudent to meet the market need."
"With E-Space, we've now reached the 'iPhone stage' of SATCOM—a cost and form factor that will allow for true ubiquitous SATCOM access across the developing and developed world," Prime Movers Lab Partner Anton Brevde wrote. "The company is still in stealth mode so we, unfortunately, can't go into the many scientific and engineering developments that were required to bring about this change but, suffice to say, it is a true step-function improvement over what exists today."
According to SpaceNews, "it is unclear what capabilities E-Space plans to test on the satellites it plans to deploy this year."
"I don't know how close we'll get to the full objective of that at these early stages," Wyler said, according to the SpaceNews article. Wyler also said that E-Space is funded through "early to mid next year, but I suspect we will have [another funding round] well before that, just based upon the level of interest.'"
As for whether the new satellite maker will file an application to the Federal Communications Commission in the US, E-Space told us that it "will be working with regulators around the world to bring our service to their markets... E-Space's requests to the ITU have all been granted, but we will continue to work closely with relevant bodies to access space fairly and responsibly."