In the seminal science fiction film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematic masterpiece that set the standard for every film of the genre since, the image of a bone flung into the air cuts to a huge satellite floating in the darkness of space, hundreds of miles above earth’s atmosphere. The director’s intent with that bit of editing was to show that mankind’s primal urge for conquest has not dimmed in the millions of years since man’s distant ancestors first discovered the use of weapons; the satellite in the film was a military weapon. Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clark, one of what was once considered the ‘Big Three’ of science fiction; the other two being Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Kubrick wanted his film to depict the reality of space exploration in the future, and Clark was a writer whose science was well researched. They got the part about the military use of satellites in the future right, but left out how saturated earth’s atmosphere would become with the multitudes of communication, navigation, weather, remote sensing, search and rescue, reconnaissance, and the giant of space exploration, the Hubble Space Telescope.
It is a given that without all those satellites great and small circumnavigating the earth, the technology the majority of civilization has become dependent on would not be possible. Internet speed and cell service gets faster and stronger with each new constellation of satellites that are launched hundreds of miles above the planet. Earlier this month, on December 21st, the world saw a first in history when SpaceX, the Hawthorne, California based aerospace manufacturer and space transport company founded by Elon Musk, managed to bring its Falcon 9 booster rocket safely back to ground. This is groundbreaking stuff for the future of space exploration, as the ability to recycle the booster rockets and reuse them will bring down the massive cost of manufacturing and launching considerably. We may not already have a base on the moon, like the one depicted in Kubrick’s prescient film, but we are now much closer to that reality, and if the founder of SpaceX has anything to say about it, we will be traveling to Mars within ten years.
The mission of the SpaceX launch last week was the placement of 11 small data-relay satellites for the Rochelle Park, N.J. based company Orbcomm. And while this is a huge achievement for the US based company, the leader in the field is a French multinational company that was founded in 1980. Arianespace, based in Evry-Courcouronnes in France, has put more than 500 satellites into orbit since its inception, including half of all telecommunications satellites now in service, and recently signed a contract with OneWeb to launch over 600 satellites in low earth orbit. The satellites will be launched over a period of 18 months in payloads of 32 to 36 at a time, with the final constellation of 648 being in place sometime at the end of 2019. The goal of OneWeb’s CEO, Greg Wyler, is to make internet available and affordable for everyone on the planet. OneWeb aims to beam wifi and mobile data service around the world, reaching homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, oil rigs, ships, airplanes and trains. It works by broadcasting a signal to a hotspot that customers can install on their roofs.
OneWeb plans to launch the 648 satellites into low earth orbit, which allows for less latency and a shorter distance for the signal to travel back to earth; the communication and data rate is vastly improved via this low earth orbit. Companies like Iridium and Global Star already have satellites at this orbit, but nowhere near the amount that will be in place after Arianespace completes its 18 month mission. Most communication systems use a higher orbit, what is called a geostationary orbit, where the satellites appear to be fixed with respect to earth because they are rotating around the earth at the same speed as the planet is rotating. As most communication satellites that are used for telephone and television are rotating at the higher orbit, the OneWeb constellation that Arianespace will launch will be the first time such a large network will be in a lower orbit to provide communication.
Arianespace uses three different types of rockets to deliver payloads into orbit from the Centre Spatial Guyanais in French Guiana as a launch site, and the company showcased models of two of their rockets at the Best of France exposition held in Times Square on September 26th and 27th of this year. The world-renowned Ariane 5, the most reliable commercial launch vehicle on the market, and the next-generation Ariane 6, slated to enter service in 2020, were on display, along with launch videos and appearances by Arianespace executives. Wiener Kernisan, Arianespace’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing, met with French President François Hollande, who appeared at the Best of France on Saturday and toured Arianespace’s booth at Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, also dropped by to check out the models and pose for photo ops with Arianespace staff. Visitors to the booth read literature about the rockets, viewed videos of prior launches and posed for selfies with the rocket models.
Kernisan is a Haitian born mechanical engineer educated in Montreal who returned to his home country to work in mining. He left Haiti to work for RCA Astro Electronics at the New Jersey plant where the company builds satellites, and, as he said in a recent interview, “If you’ve been in this business once, there isn’t anything else you want to do in this life.” Kernisan has been with Arianespace for 15 years, and has a relationship with OneWeb through Wyler’s previous company, O3b networks. In June, OneWeb announced the world’s largest commercial rocket deal after raising $500 million from a group of global investors, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Europe’s Airbus Group. Kernisan explained that by the end of 2019, when the full satellite constellation is operational, “You will notice that anywhere in the world, the access to internet, through phone or other device, will be much faster and stronger. “This is not the case right now, and when you can’t get a connection, you realize how important internet access is.”