Satellites in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) are smaller and consume less power than those in LEO. They can also operate at lower frequencies for telecommunications applications. Combined, these factors make VLEO satellites attractive because they enable the same capacity at a fraction of the cost.
In addition to savings in size, power consumption and mass, operating in VLEO reduces communications latency as well as space debris risk. It limits the number of collisions with debris and enables satellites to be brought back to Earth more quickly by atmospheric drag than is possible in higher orbits.
Companies are developing technologies to make VLEO more viable. These include alternative design approaches to cut the weight of a satellite, materials designed to reduce atmospheric drag and new propulsion systems that can use the residual atmosphere as propellant. The University of Manchester leads the DISCOVERER project to develop these technologies and is working closely with industry partners on commercial applications.
The most promising application is connecting consumers’ broadband devices to the internet via VLEO satellites. The satellite would be visible to the consumer through a broadband terminal that could track the satellite’s position and hop to the next one as it moves briskly around the world in its orbit. This technology has the potential to be a game changer for those who are not connected to the internet today. However, policymakers need to support research and development of the enabling technologies to realise its full benefits.