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Report: Super-constellations “too ambitious”

April 16, 2023

By Chris Forrester

There are many satellite super-constellations under development. Elon Musk gets plenty of headlines with his SpaceX Starlink system, followed by the Jeff Bezos Kuiper Project, the rapidly growing SES O3b group of satellites and existing orbital services from the likes of Iridium. But there are others, and a report from management consultants McKinsey says that some of these satellite operators are “creating overly ambitious plans”.

McKinsey says interest in building and launching commercial-satellite constellations continues to be high because of recent technological advances and cost reductions, combined with better access to capital. “

While some industry analysts feared that private investment in the space sector would plummet from the record highs achieved in 2021, the decrease in 2022 was less severe than expected and capital inflows were the second-highest on record. Excitement about commercial-satellite constellations spans multiple sectors, with companies exploring wide-ranging use cases, ranging from national security to climate monitoring to improve life on Earth.”

A survey conducted in 2021 by McKinsey found that [some] operators not yet placed a single asset into orbit. An update in 2023 to that original study found that interest in satellite constellations “remained strong” and continued to grow. The number of announced satellite constellations is now well over 300, up from about 250 in mid-2019, states McKinsey.

But, and here’s the problem, “Reality continues to lag behind expectations. For announced constellations, about 45 percent have not yet had a single satellite launch and about 10 percent have stagnant growth, defined as no launches for more than a year,” says McKinsey.

On the upside, says the firm, “positive momentum is growing. Although many operators have experienced little growth, nearly 30 percent of constellations did launch satellites over the past year, compared with only about 15 percent in mid-2021.”

“For the remainder of 2023, we anticipate that current constellations, including megaconstellations in non-geosynchronous orbit that enable communications, will continue to make progress and that some new ones will emerge. Simultaneously, the number of constellations that are cancelled, either through a formal announcement or simply by not making progress, will also increase. Industry entrepreneurs who follow these developments may gain insight into the factors that set successful constellations apart from the rest,” says McKinsey.

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