The race to connect the Arctic is on

As the shifting atmospheric as well as geopolitical climate increases the demand for additional bandwidth in one of the world’s last key frontiers, satellite firms are moving into the Arctic to raise connection. In locations better handled by satellites in NGSO (non-geostationary orbit), both new and current operators perceive an increasing need for capacity.

The world’s largest broadband megaconstellations in LEO (low Earth orbit), OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, both contain polar-orbiting satellites in their fleets. With O3b mPower, SES’s next-generation MEO (medium Earth orbit) network, that is anticipated to begin launching satellites this year, inclined planes are being considered for coverage of the Arctic.

The ASBM (Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission), a collaboration between the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, Inmarsat, and the United States Air Force, proposes to launch two satellites into extremely elliptical orbits aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in 2023 for arctic coverage.

RSCC (Russian Satellite Communications Co.) has announced intentions to add 4 satellites to its own fleet in highly elliptical orbits in the next years, extending coverage far beyond the Arctic Circle. In exchange for government funding, Telesat has agreed to link indigenous villages in Canada’s far north with its anticipated LEO constellation.

The Arctic’s connectivity will be transformed by these high-speed networks. Iridium Communications is now the only operator that provides lasting coverage over the poles for decades, but primarily for low-bandwidth services like mobile telephony and different monitoring and tracking applications.

According to Armand Musey, who is the founder of advisory company Summit Ridge Group, the operators have been deploying geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites to cover sections of the Arctic with a field of vision to their fixed locations along the equator for increased bandwidth needs.

Geostationary satellites above the equator are unable to hit high polar altitudes due to the Earth’s curvature. Military and other government customers, on the other hand, have already tasked older GEOs that have migrated south or north of their initial equatorial orbits to supply capacity in these areas, according to Musey.

“A non-station-maintained satellite’s polar coverage is typically only for a few hours every day at each pole,” he explained. Due to the general low elevation angles, GEO satellites require larger and more costly dishes as they get closer to the poles, and “even then, tiny alterations in the topography can block the view angle.”  He explained that “the opposite is true for NGSO groups with polar orbits.” “The satellites were crossing at the poles, which provides the best capacity and view angles.”

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