Just days after Google scrapped its controversial search engine project in China, a leading aerospace firm helmed the successful launch of the country’s first communication satellite for space-based broadband services on Saturday, December 22. In an apparent bid to rival Google and other global firms, the Hongyun project aims to set up a low-cost, high-performance satellite network with the help of 156 satellites by 2023.
Launched in a Long March 11 solid-fuel carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in north-western China, this is the first of at least four mass-production cyber satellites to take off as part of the Hongyun project by 2020.
What is the Hongyun experiment?
Inaugurated in 2016, the project is led by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC) with a vision to build a space-based communications network that is able to offer broadband internet connectivity to users around the world, especially in remote and underserved regions. The network will constitute some 150 communication satellites, situated in earth’s lower orbit (at an altitude of 160 to 2,000 km) with each of them transmitting 500 megabytes of data per second. It is expected to become operational by 2022.
According to state-run media reports, the spacecraft, which is currently in orbit, has been equipped to test and verify the first Hongyun satellite’s designs and demonstrate its ability to offer low-orbit broadband communications technologies. Expected to operate a little longer than its design-life of one year, the 247 kg satellite works in a sun-synchronous orbit about 1,100 kilometres above earth and is powered by solar arrays, said Xiang Kaiheng, chief designer of the satellite and associated with CASIC Space Engineering Development Co. Ltd.
After a year-long in-orbit technological demonstration by the satellite, CASIC plans to launch four more by the end of 2020 so as to form a small-scale network of sorts to give Hongyun a trial run, Xiang said according to China Daily. Operational satellites will be launched after the first tests of the baseline network prove successful.
The next phase of the project would involve placing 150 such satellites in orbits about 1,000 km above the ground by 2023, followed by further expansion of the constellation depending on market demand.
Expansion of the Chinese tech sector
This makes the recent launch of China’s first COM-SAT potentially historic, as it marks the country’s entry into the thriving internet service-providing sector worldwide. China also successfully launched three high orbit satellites in the last two months itself, in order to boost its home-grown BeiDou global satellite navigation system, currently being developed to rival the US’ Global Position System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and the European Union’s Galileo. This project also extended navigation services to all those countries in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
According to experts, the Hongyun project will enable complete coverage of communications, navigation, remote sensing, cater to application demands like sensor data acquisition, industrial Internet of Things, and remote control of unmanned vehicles.
The Hongyun launch further comes amidst mounting concern regarding China’s regulations and fierce privacy laws when it comes to sharing information within and beyond borders or being surveilled by the rest of the world. Media (including social media) is either monitored with a fine-tooth comb or banned by the state, to avoid misinformation and misrepresentation of the government on a global platform. The country even has its own version of Facebook, Twitter, email service providers
Need for speed
Today, industry players across the globe have co-opted the concept of running and providing cost-effective, affordable yet speedy internet services. Google, SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat are among those that have already begun working on using satellites to provide free internet access. NASA claims that the Hongyun network will have even lower production and operational costs and fewer occurrences of data transmission delays than existing communication satellite networks.
According to news reports, another Chinese internet firm recently announced a plan to put together a constellation of 272 satellites for free WiFi access in the country. On a grander scale, Elon Musk’s SpaceX also launched two experimental satellites last month to test the communication tech involved in the ambitious Starlink project, which aims to put a total of nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit by the mid-2020s. US firm OneWeb also reportedly plans to launch a satellite constellation of 648 low-Earth orbit microsatellites by the end of 2019.
Once the Hongyun project is successful, the Chinese network will offer global coverage and round-the-clock communication services to users facing difficulty in accessing telecommunication and internet services, especially in polar regions, and even aboard a ship or an aircraft. The successful launch notes China’s progress in mapping the low-orbit broadband communication satellite system and a disruption in the global sector.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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