“[Ongoing satellite deployment] is going to transform our lives, just as the smartphone did”

Help from the heavens

How the EU’s advances in the space industry can support us on Earth


OCTOBER 2021 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair 

The recent jaunts of billionaires into space have attracted a great deal of attention — for ushering in the age of space tourism and also for how they starkly illustrate the inequality of life on Earth. But for the foreseeable future, human spaceflight, and unmanned missions to other planets, will represent a fraction of the rapidly expanding space industry. The satellite business, currently worth more than $350 billion, accounts for the lion’s share of the sector.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there were 7,389 satellites in orbit at the end of April 2021. Some 850 of those were launched in the first four months of the year, up 28% over the same period in 2020. This burgeoning network of satellites underpins increasingly sophisticated capabilities in fields such as communications, navigation, imagery, weather forecasting, surveillance, security, and broadcasting. Tens of thousands more satellites are expected to be launched in the coming decade.

In May, the EU’s space programme underwent a reorganisation with the aim of bolstering the bloc’s competitiveness in the sector. The European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) was launched to replace the European Global Navigation Satellite System Agency and given a new remit to facilitate more opportunities from space for the EU’s economy and its citizens.

The agency will continue to oversee the EU’s satellite-navigation system Galileo, and the EGNOS satellite augmentation system, which improves the accuracy and reliability of data from Galileo and the US’s GPS system. EUSPA will also work to develop commercial uses of Copernicus, the world’s most advanced Earth observation system, which can monitor, and help mitigate, the effects of climate breakdown.

Japan was something of a satellite pioneer, first putting one into orbit in 1970, becoming the fourth nation to do so. It now has its own satellite-navigations system, QZSS, which can work in conjunction with GPS, and a total of nearly 200 satellites in orbit. Although the Japanese satellite sector has longstanding ties with its US counterpart, European firms are making inroads.

In March 2021, SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, Japan’s leading satellite operator, best known for its pay TV channels, selected Airbus to build Superbird-9, a digital telecommunications satellite.

“This is a landmark contract for Airbus in Japan, and it marks the first time a Japanese telecommunications operator has ordered a satellite from Europe,” says Stéphane Ginoux, president of Airbus Japan and head of North Asia for the multinational European aerospace firm.

Airbus is a major player — and Europe’s largest firm — in the space sector, with significant shares in the global market for telecom and Earth observation satellite systems.  It has developed nearly 200 satellites over its 50 years in the business, and is justifiably proud of its “impeccable track record of zero failures in orbit”, points out Ginoux.

In addition to satellites, Airbus also supplies everything from electronic components and full telecommunications relay platforms to crewed spacecraft. The firm is developing the technology to send spaceships to other planets, according to Ginoux.

Airbus has also partnered with OneWeb to design and manufacture a network of low Earth-orbiting satellites, which is bringing internet access to parts of the globe that were previously poorly connected to the web. Investors include the UK government, European satellite operator Eutelsat, and Japan’s Softbank.

French satellite launching company Arianespace won its first contract in Japan in 1989, a JCSAT-1 for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation. That was also Japan’s first geosynchronous communication satellite, which is synchronised to the Earth’s orbit.

Since then, Arianespace has launched 32 such satellites, giving it a market share of around 75%, according to Kiyoshi Takamatsu, head of the company’s Japan operation. It also recently put a BSAT-4b into orbit for NHK to support the 4K and 8K broadcasts of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and it has conducted launches for JAXA, Japan’s space agency.

Arianespace sees the scope and scale of the business growing exponentially in the years ahead.

“we are talking about tens of thousands of satellites”

“Startup satellite companies keep emerging with new ideas and projects. In addition to various constellation projects, we are talking about tens of thousands of satellites,” says Takamatsu. “Due to the sheer number, not all these projects will succeed but, at this stage, we can make ourselves helpful by proposing efficient and flexible launch services for satellites of any mass, into any kind of orbit, any time.”

Satellite constellations work as a network that can deliver services such as high-speed broadband with low latency, and better weather forecasting. Cyrille Dupont, CEO of Thales Japan, predicts that the ongoing deployment of satellites “is going to transform our lives, just as the smartphone did”.

With global warming leading to bigger and more frequent disasters, the new generation of meteorological satellites has the potential to save lives by providing authorities and the general public with more time to prepare for them.

“We are powerless in the face of the magnitude of these climatic catastrophes,” says Dupont. “As of now, we have to admit the only way we have to reduce their impact, particularly in terms of human loss, is to improve weather predictions.”

In Japan, the firm is currently targeting the telecommunications market with the tech from its French–Italian joint venture Thales Alenia Space. Meanwhile in Europe, Thales recently concluded a contract with the new EUSPA to roll out an upgrade of EGNOS that is due to come online in 2023. This upgrade will “address some obsolescence” in the current system, explains Dupont.

Airbus’s Ginoux believes that there will be a number of future challenges, which “will definitely include space traffic management and environmental issues, as the number of satellites is increasing dramatically”.

He also predicts that, “Security in space will become as essential a subject as it is on Earth,” but acknowledges that there will also be yet-to-be-imagined challenges.

What else may be in store for the industry? Of course, there is further exploration of the final frontier itself.

Ginoux says, “Space is by its nature the search for the unknown and what is beyond what human beings have already discovered.” •