China raises stakes in SpaceX internet rivalry, claims higher orbit for first SkyNet satellite

The first satellite in China’s ambitious Smart SkyNet broadband internet constellation – intended to rival Elon Musk’s Starlink – was launched into medium Earth orbit on Thursday.

The satellite, known as Zhihui Tianwang-1 01 or Smart SkyNet-1 01, left the Xichang satellite launch centre in southwestern China at 9.43am Beijing time atop a Long March 3B rocket.

Its developer China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said the satellite will test high-speed, user-friendly communication technologies from 20,000km (12,400 miles) above the Earth.

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According to CASC, the satellite will be joined by seven more satellites in an initial formation of the SkyNet constellation, with the potential for expansion to 16 or 32 satellites.

The satellite constellation bears the same name as China’s video surveillance network of public spaces – the largest of its kind on Earth, with more than 20 million cameras. The connection between the two systems is unclear.

The Smart SkyNet constellation could be combined with China’s low Earth orbit megaconstellations – GuoWang and G60 Starlink, which each consist of more than 12,000 satellites – as well as those in higher geostationary orbit, according to CCTV.

“Such an integrated, space-based network will provide internet access to all types of users across all scenarios and all domains,” the state broadcaster said on Thursday.

“Once complete, the constellation will provide personalised broadband network services with no blind spots globally,” the report said.

According to CCTV, Smart SkyNet-1 01 will test core technologies, including space-based laser communication and on-demand internet access for users ranging from Antarctica research stations to ships in the Western Indian Ocean and satellites in low Earth orbits.

Medium Earth orbit – typically defined as altitudes between 2,000km (just over a mile) and 36,000km (22,400 miles) – is mostly used for global navigation systems. GPS networks operate at around 20,200km (12,600 miles) while China’s BeiDou satellites are at 21,500km (13,400 miles).

The world’s largest broadband constellation, SpaceX’s Starlink, has nearly 6,000 satellites in low Earth orbit to deliver internet services to remote locations around the world. The Texas-based company says that number could ultimately rise to 42,000.

A Tsinghua University team came up with the idea of putting a broadband constellation into medium Earth orbit, with a collaboration agreement signed with the Shanghai municipal government in 2018 to implement the project, according to the university’s WeChat account.

Tsinghua said multiple institutes were involved in the development of Smart SkyNet-1 01, including researchers from CASC, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to CASC, the satellite is equipped with a multi-beam, high-speed microwave link, an inter-satellite two-way laser link, and a digital processing and forwarding platform.

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