Space Investing Section 1: LEO, Tracking,
Global Satellite Mobile 2-Way
Here we provide additional information
and links concerning mobile satellite 2-way communications
with individual transceivers on earth. These transceivers
might be a satellite telephone, a pager, a laptop, etc.
Globalstar and Iridium use constellations
of satellites in low earth orbit to reduce signal
transit times and to obtain higher bandwidth to power
ratios than geostationary systems. Tthe satellites orbit
faster than the earth turns so many satellites must
be distributed in numerous orbits to insure that at
least one satellite is always in view.
Conversely, Inmarsat and Thuraya use satellites
in geostationary orbit and thus have longer delays and
cannot cover the polar latitudes. However, they only
need a few satellites.
[See the Shopping
section for links to retailers of
personal satellite communications products.]
These multi-billion dollar systems provide, or intended
to provide, telephone and/or data (e.g. internet) communications
services. (See also the GEO
Mobile Communications companies.)
By 2003 the large internet satellite constellation
projects, e.g. Teledesic, SkyBridge were either canceled
or suspended due to the severe depression in the general
telecom market. Satellite
Internet via GEO satellites continues with companies
ICO was a major
satellite constellation project that was also postponed
but continues today as a combination of terrestrial
and satellite communications, which falls in the category
of Mobile Satellite Services. Skyterra
are also MSS firms.
has over 66 satellites in orbit and began service in
late 1998. However, due to poor marketing, high charges,
late delivery of workable phones, gigantic debt load,
spread of terrestrial cell phone systems, etc., the
company attracted only 63 thousand subscribers instead
of the 100s of thousands expected by mid-1999. It declared
bankruptcy and even planned to begin de-orbiting of
In November 2000, however, an investor group purchased
the Iridium assets for $25 million. It received a 2
year contract with the US Dept. of Defense to supply
communications services. Without a $4 billion debt to
pay off, the new company, called Iridium Satellite,
only had to attract another 30k of subscribers to break
The company reported
in April 2008 that it was profitable and had over 280,000
subscribers worldwide by the summer of 2008. The company
has said that it intends to apply for a FCC license
for a next generation satellite system to replace the
Iridium and partners are also now offering systems
to provide low cost aviation communications - voice,
data, & messaging:
has a 48 satellite system that was much cheaper to build
and use than Iridium. Instead of switching telephone
connections on and between satellites, Globalstar satellites
merely receive phone signals and relay them back to
gateway stations on the ground. The gateways take care
of switching the connection to the correct line. This
means that mid-ocean and polar regions are not served,
but most land and coastal areas will eventually be served.
Despite these advantages, Globalstar also failed to
attract sufficient business and declared bankruptcy
in February 2002. It was later sold to a group that
took it private.
As of August 2008, Globalstar has 315,000 customers.
Like Iridium, it is developing out niche markets such
as emergency communications, low data rate tracking
applications, aviation phones and data transmission,
and workers in remote areas.
for example, is using the Globalstar system to connect
remote devices, e.g. fuel pipe monitoring sensors,
to the web.
ARNAV is developing
a cockpit communications system based on Globalstar.
has developed a tracking system that uses the Globalstar
To make it economical to monitor the location of a
railroad car or a truck on the highway, or to obtain
readings on an electric meter or a pipeline pumping
station, a low cost service is required.
Rather than the continuous (or, at least, appearing
continuous to the user) connections needed for telephone
calls or internet links, such services only need occasional
short bursts of information.
Several systems, see below, provide such services.
Currently they are mostly carried out by Geosat
systems (e.g. Qualcomm's Omintracs) but LEO systems
are now available. They also use the GPS
system for location determination.
Recently, Globalstar and Iridium have begun to offer
their systems for tracking and monitoring applications.
LEO Satellite Constellations
These constellations, which cost in the range
of $100's of millions, are primarily for low data
rate messaging and paging services. They aim to
provide low cost communications services in situations
where full telephone connections are not needed.
) currently is the only Little LEO actually
in business. It has now completed its basic system
of 35 satellites in orbit.
Unlike Iridium and Globalstar, Orbcomm recieved
a subtantial number of orders for its units,
reportedly reaching over 200,000. But the company
had various technical problems that slowed installation
and led to severe cash flow problems. It's primary
owners, Orbital Science and Teleglobe, had their
own, unrelated financial problems and could
not bail out Orbcomm, which then had to declare
bankruptcy. The company was recently sold to
a consortium of investors who hope to realize
the potential of the company, which continued
to run its operations during the bankruptcy
period. As of March 2009, Orbcomm as 476000
The geostationary communication satellites are getting
as big as trailer homes. Economies of scale push to
provide ever more transponders of increasing power,
i.e. bandwidths. Building such satellites is a major
challenge and is done by a few large aerospace companies.
Low earth communication satellites, on the other hand,
more often involve smaller satellites but in high numbers.
A wider range of companies build such birds.
Other satellites include those for scientific and military
applications. These are built in significant numbers
but the communications business is dominate.
Whether its a major satellite company or a student
nano-sat project, many parts are obtained from outside
suppliers. Some companies both build their own satellites
as well as supply parts to others.
Solar panels, sun sensors (for coarse orientation determination),
reaction wheels (for spinning or de-spinning a satellite,
etc, are typically obtained from companies specializing
in these technologies.
The growing small satellite market has encouraged several
Although some or all of the development money may have
come from government/military sources, many private
companies now build and launch rockets purely for commercial
Arianespace holds the largest share of the worldwide
commercial launch market. After the Challenger accident
the shuttle was prohibited from commercial launchings.
Since then US companies have gotten back into the market
with improved versions of the Atlas and Delta rockets
as well as some newer small vehicles such as the Orbital
Science Pegasus. All of these vehicles are expendable,
i.e. used once per flight.
Several small startup companies are designing and building
completely reusable launchers. They are struggling for
funding but could have vehicles in orbit within a couple
They are aiming primarily at the low earth orbit market,
especially the LEO communications
Every satellite needs a ground system for control and
telemetry operations. Of course, communication satellites
also require ground antennas of various sizes, depending
on the signal strengths, frequencies and bandwidths.
Remember that even the cable TV industry depends on
satellite distribution of programming to local cable
operators. If you drive by your local cable company,
it will typically be surrounded by a cluster of large
antennas. Even with today's fiber lines, it is still
usually cheaper to multicast TV programming from a single
satellite to multiple receivers.
The ground system business is not as glamorous as the
rocket and satellite business but is a big and important
one nonetheless. Besides the large antenna systems.
there are over 16 million Americans with small direct-to-home
and the larger C-band dishes.
When you use your credit card at a store or service
station, the transaction may very well be carried out
via a small dish (VSAT) on the roof.
These dishes are called Very Small Aperture Terminals
(VSAT) and allow businesses to create their own long
distance, multi-point networks totally free of the telephone
The VSAT business is growing fast. The US Post Office,
for example, recently ordered about 25000 terminals
to provide to many of its offices. The intention was
originally to use fast ground lines but a study found
that satellite communications were more economical except
for offices in the largest urban areas.
Enterprises - This company specializes in onboard
imaging systems and data-transport systems for use with
rockets, spacecraft and other remote platforms. They
have put rocketcams on several vehicles that show in
real time the "look-back" view as the rocket
launches from the pad and all the way into space.