Expectations versus reality: Commercial satellite constellations

Despite a steady, sizeable uptick in announced commercial constellations over the past few years, many constellation operators have yet to meet original ambitions.

Interest in commercial space ventures has grown explosively in recent years, with investment increasing more than tenfold over the past decade compared with the prior one. 1 Although space tourism and launches tend to generate the most prominent headlines, an equally interesting trend relates to the planned growth of commercial satellite constellations from operators around the globe. 2

Commercial satellite operators worldwide are planning to launch nearly 250 new constellations, and most of these—about 150—have been announced in the past two years. Analysis shows that many operators begin with ambitious objectives for launch timelines and constellation count, only to find that available funding and market demand interfere with their long-term ambitions. That has been true despite the influx of capital the commercial space sector has seen in recent years.

More than half of announced constellations have yet to place an asset in orbit (Exhibit 1). Under 5 percent have achieved their goals for satellite count, and only 12 percent have added to their existing constellations in the past year.

Expectations for constellation deployments have not yet met reality.
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When constellations stagnate, they typically do so after having achieved less than 20 percent, and in many cases, less than 10 percent, of their proposed size by satellite count (Exhibit 2).

Constellations typically stagnate before achieving 20 percent of their  originally planned number of satellites.
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In addition to falling short of their desired constellation magnitude, many commercial satellite operators are unable to meet their original timelines. Of those constellations that have yet to launch a single satellite, 24 percent were announced in 2019 or earlier.

To be sure, some past constellations have achieved success, and ambitious projects are still under way, including several mega non-geosynchronous orbit communications constellations. But the sector’s history of less successful forays is also important to consider.

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