You may not be able to see it from where you're sitting, but Washington and Beijing are engaged in a secret space war, to dominate Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) surveillance satellites.
And, as usual, China's fast growing space agency is determined to outpace the Americans, while European interests are looking on with interest.
What's at stake is very simple — their advantage is they can speed up data capture, opening the way for detailed Earth observation in almost real time, according to a report in Intelligence Online.
Flying at lower altitude generally improves the resolution of optical sensors, radiometric performance (infrared/microwave sensors) and geospatial accuracy.
That zone is easier to reach and has less space junk than higher orbits.
Launching and operating these mega-constellations is however fraught with difficulties, because at such low altitude (150 to 300 km), satellites are highly sensitive to solar winds, aerodynamic drag and gravitational pull.
All of which are significant enough to make a spacecraft’s orbit decay in less than five years, requiring changes in traditional designs.
They are also vulnerable to adversarial jamming from the ground.
Then there is the launch window issue.
Peter Beck, the CEO of launch services startup, of Rocket Lab, affirmed the overwhelming numbers of objects in VLEO are making it increasingly difficult to find a clear path for rockets to launch new satellites.
The rockets "have to try and weave their way up in between these satellite constellations,” Beck told CNN, referring to SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.
While still in its infancy, the sector has the potential to be a big earner: Elon Musk's Starlink will account for more than US$10 billion of SpaceX’s total sales next year, Bloomberg News reported.
US players Albedo and EOI Space, meanwhile, are in danger of being overtaken by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), which plans to launch its first VLEO satellite this year, Intelligence Online reported.
CASIC's program director Bei Chao said that its future constellation would operate at an altitude of between 150 km and 300 km, with an initial cluster of nine satellites in 2024, 192 in 2027 and 300 in 2030, with a promised resolution of 50 cm.
It will include observation satellites and telecoms relay satellites to guarantee image transmission to the ground in less than 15 minutes anywhere in the world.
An impressive and imposing system plan.
It would primarily be used for observation and potential applications in agriculture and monitoring natural disasters, China said at the time, the usual cover for military uses.
However, in a rare reversal, Beijing's priorities have apparently changed to focus on the telecoms aspect, Intelligence Online reported.
This is now systematically highlighted and the flight altitude is now announced as "below 400 km," which is higher than before.
Most importantly, CASIC no longer mentions observation.
China's new approach reflects growing concern about the rapid deployment of US telecom satellites, Intelligence Online reported.
The prospect of thousands of commercial (Starlink already, Kuiper soon) and military satellite constellations simply cannot be ignored.
China, despite the resources it is deploying in space, may find it difficult to follow America's lead.
As for the US players in this game, the contract awarded by the US geospatial intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to Albedo confirmed the Californian company's position as the US defence provider of choice for VLEO.
Albedo was the first commercial player to receive a licence from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to acquire 10 cm resolution images.
Under pressure from the Pentagon, the company added thermal infrared technology to its satellites.
Infrared is considered “the next big thing" in Earth observation, said Anthony Baker, CEO of Satellite Vu, a British startup.
Albedo was created in 2021 in Silicon Valley's influential Y Combinator and is advised by former CIA director John Deutch and the former head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) retired Vice-Adm. Robert Sharp.
It plans to launch its first two 10 cm resolution satellites in 2025.
“I’m excited to see the tremendous progress that Albedo is making towards their quest to provide rapid delivery and accessibility to the highest resolution satellite imagery to date,” said Sharp in a statement.
“The use cases for this type of capability are limitless and will greatly benefit humanity.”
EOI Space is the other key US player in the segment. But despite prestigious endorsements, including from David Gauthier, former head of commercial operations at the NGA, EOI does not have the same support from the defence community as Albedo.
However, as the holder of a commercial licence for 15 cm resolution images, the company has been able to move ahead thanks to a US$72M data pre-purchase agreement signed at the end of 2022 with Japan's NTT Data in exchange for exclusive rights for the Japanese civilian and, above all, military markets.
Thanks to cloud technologies implemented on Amazon Web Services, EOI Space expects to be able to deliver images acquired by its 60 Stingray satellites within eight to 20 minutes.
“Our goal is to have the imagery data skip the traditional ground station processing stacks,” said EOI co-founder and chief revenue officer, Paul Smith.
“We knew it was important, we didn’t know how important. But after talking to the Air Force and Army it became pretty clear that getting the data faster is their fundamental desire. It’s something they’re looking for all of us out there in space to do.”
While the commercial potential of VLEO has the potential to empower the roughly three billion people who are currently without broadband internet, there is a perilous downside.
Expanded internet access increases the surveillance capabilities of government and private entities.
And every new satellite increases the chance of a disastrous collision which could set off a chain of events.
China won’t limit its ambition to just very-low orbit satellites, according to Carla Filotico, partner and managing director with SpaceTec Partners in London.
Beijing’s other projects include missions to the moon, development of a huge new version of its Long March rocket that could compete with Musk’s Starship, as well as deploying satellites in VLEO.
“We have limited visibility of the full capabilities of China in space,” she said. However, “when they want to achieve something, they are very good at it.”
— with files from Intelligence Online