CASIC’s Ambitious Venture: Building a Game-Changing Constellation of 300 Satellites in Very-Low Earth Orbit

China’s space and defense contractor, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), is gearing up to launch a constellation of 300 satellites in very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) later this year. The VLEO constellation will initially consist of 192 satellites by 2027 and will provide users with space information services every half an hour. The plan is to expand the constellation to 300 satellites by 2030, as revealed at the China Commercial Aerospace Forum held in Wuhan.

The VLEO constellation is set to revolutionize space information services by offering a host of advantages over traditional higher orbits. VLEO refers to altitudes ranging from 150 to 300 kilometers, where atmospheric drag causes orbits to decay rapidly without regular propulsion boosts. However, the closer proximity to Earth provides natural advantages, such as shorter distance, low latency, and low path loss, making it an attractive option for certain applications.

Zhang Nan, the chief designer of the constellation at CASIC’s General Department of Space Engineering, explained that the VLEO communications and sensing integrated constellation aims to create a system that is small, excellent, fast, intelligent, and cost-effective. By employing intelligent algorithms, direct satellite-to-satellite, and low latency satellite-to-Earth communications, the constellation can offer users seamless services covering sensing, transmission, and computing.

CASIC plans to launch its first VLEO verification satellite in December, focusing on demonstrating and verifying key technologies like VLEO orbital flight, high-resolution Earth imaging, intelligent processing, and direct data transmission to user terminals.

The potential benefits of VLEO satellites are numerous. They can provide lower power demands, operate in a lower radiation environment, utilize smaller and less complex sensors, and have reduced requirements for data transfer and launch. These factors contribute to driving down costs and make VLEO an attractive prospect for various communications and remote sensing missions.

While China is pursuing VLEO capabilities and testing new systems, it is part of a broader pattern of comprehensive capability development across various space-related concepts. The Chinese space program’s scale and political support create an environment conducive to innovation and exploration in multiple domains.

Beyond China, VLEO concepts have also emerged in the United States and Europe in recent years. Several American firms and research programs have raised funds to investigate deploying Earth observation satellites in much lower altitudes, highlighting the global interest in this area of space technology.

In China’s 14th Five Year Plan, global remote sensing capabilities, including higher resolution, more frequent revisits, and faster transmission speeds, were identified as key space infrastructure, further underscoring the significance of VLEO technologies in meeting the nation’s space goals.

As CASIC progresses with its ambitious VLEO constellation project, the world will be eagerly watching how this technology develops and transforms space-based services, unlocking new possibilities for the future of space exploration and information services. However, it will also be essential for CASIC to overcome technical challenges and ensure reliability, safety, and commercial viability before fully realizing the potential of VLEO satellites.