In recent years, the world has witnessed a revolution in satellite technology, leading to the development of mega-constellations of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) aimed at providing global satellite internet access. One of the most prominent projects in this domain is Starlink, launched by SpaceX in early 2015, which has already launched over 1700 satellites in 2022 alone, promising global connectivity regardless of location. However, China has been quietly developing its own satellite constellation project in the background, aiming to connect the world via satellite internet access.
China’s largest space conglomerate, CASC, announced its ambitious plan for a constellation of over 300 satellites in LEO in November 2016, named Hongyan. This constellation was designed to provide satellite internet access and other niche applications, such as mobile communications, AIS, ADS-B, space IoT, and GNSS enhancement. The initial phase was scheduled to deploy 60 satellites by 2022 and the full constellation by 2025, with a budget of 20 billion Chinese Yuan. A new entity, Dongfanghong Satellite Mobile Communication Co, was created in Chongqing to lead the project, and production lines for the satellites were commissioned in Tianjin, with an initial output of 130 satellites per year.
Around the same time, another Chinese aerospace conglomerate, CASIC, announced its plans for the Hongyun constellation of 156 satellites, with individual satellites’ capacities of 10 Gbps, orbiting at an altitude of 1175 km. Large satellite production sites were established in Wuhan with a capacity of manufacturing 240 satellites per year.
After the deployment of the concept validation prototypes, Hongyan-1 and Hongyun-1, in late 2018, things seemed to slow down. However, a significant shift in China’s strategy was taking place beneath the surface.
In April 2020, China’s top economic regulator, the NDRC, flagged the concept of “Satellite Internet” as critical infrastructure, adding it to a list of core technologies called “New Infrastructure,” including 5G, AI, and IoT. In September 2020, two spectrum allocation filings were received from China by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), describing two similarly named constellations, “GW-A59” and “GW-2.” It soon became apparent that China was merging the previous Hongyun and Hongyan projects into one super-constellation comprising a total of 12,992 satellites. In April 2021, China established a new company called China Satellite Network Group, or “China SatNet,” which would be the operator of the future satellite internet constellation.
China’s ambitious plan signals a new era in satellite technology, one that promises to connect the world like never before. However, challenges such as spectrum allocation, space debris, and regulatory issues must be resolved. From Beijing’s perspective, the critical nature of satellite internet justified the fact that this activity needed to be wholly state-owned, like the 4G and 5G on the ground, which are operated by China’s three telcos, China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom.
The story of China’s satellite constellation plan is a testament to the country’s growing prowess in space technology and its determination to compete in the global arena. As the world witnesses the rise of mega-constellations, it is no surprise that China is also investing heavily in this domain. With the establishment of China Satellite Network Group, China is poised to join the ranks of SpaceX and other companies leading the charge in this domain.