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The “satellite factory race” triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like “building airplanes”



On September 4, Space X’s “Falcon 9” rocket carried 60 Starlink satellites into the sky. With this launch, the total number of satellites successfully launched by Musk’s “Starlink Project” has reached 713. Faster than the launch speed is Space X’s satellite production speed. It is reported that the Starlink factory can manufacture 120 satellites per month.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 1

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 2

图源:Twitter/Michael Sheetz

Chinese commercial aerospace companies, which started later than Space X, are accelerating the pace of catching up under the surge of “new infrastructure”.

China’s first private satellite factory, Jiutian MSI Smart Satellite Factory, also officially started construction in Lunan District, Tangshan City, Hebei Province. This is the first major project to land after satellite Internet is incorporated into the country’s new infrastructure. It will be completed and put into production in early 2021.By then, the annual production capacity of more than 100 satellites in the hundred kilogram class can be achieved

With the start of a new round of “space race”, according to incomplete statistics, as of now, there have been nearly 100,000 satellites in near-Earth orbit. The huge launch plan has forced satellite manufacturing to enter the “industrial” stage. On this track, China also needs to run faster.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 3

There are nearly 100,000 satellites in near-Earth orbit. Source: YouTube/Analytical Graphics, Inc

01

China’s first private satellite factory

“Jiutian Satellite Factory has a lot to do in the future”, this is the inscription made by Sun Jiadong, the winner of the “Republic Medal” and the meritorious scientist of “Two Bombs and One Star”, for the start of the construction of the nine days MSI satellite R&D and manufacturing base, which started on September 1. Quite profound.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 4

On September 1, China’s first private satellite factory was officially started in Tangshan, Hebei. Source: MSI

In the traditional sense, aerospace applications belong to the field of “national teams”, and the launched satellites are usually in geosynchronous orbits.Customized production method, theoretically requires 26~32 months for design, manufacturing, and launch cycle, Is also due to the long production cycle, high technology and cost threshold.

As of the end of 2019, China has more than 300 satellites in orbit, while the number of satellites in orbit globally is 2,218.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 5

Source: Everbright Securities

However, in the next 10 years, 100,000 low-orbit satellites will likely redefine the “star-and-spread” in space: Space X’s “Starlink Project” 42,000, Oneweb constellation 48,000, Amazon’s Kuiper constellation 3236 A… The domestic satellite constellation plan has also been launched.

According to incomplete statistics, there are 10 projects with more than 30 launches. Among them, the “Hongyan” constellation with the Chinese character prefix plans to launch 300 satellites, and the “Hongyun” constellation plans to launch 156 satellites.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 6

Source: Everbright Securities

Such a huge launch plan has forced a fundamental change in satellite design and production methods.

The constellation launch plans are basically in low-Earth orbit within 2000 kilometers from the earth.guardThe star is small in size, light in weight, and short in orbit life, and the constellation networking mode can be demonstrated and designed at one time.In mass production, the production cycle of satellites is reduced to several weeks or even days.All these make it possible for commercial capital to enter satellite production.

In April this year, the National Development and Reform Commission designated satellite Internet as one of the “new infrastructure” information infrastructures, and the development of the commercial aerospace industry changed from “guerrilla warfare” to “positional warfare.” According to statistics, 1128 domestic satellite Internet-related companies registered in the first half of the year, a year-on-year increase of 158%.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 7

Source: Enterprise Check

As one of the earliest companies to deploy satellite Internet in China, Jiutian MSI took the lead in completing the launch and operation of 100kg-class near-orbit satellites in 2018, and initiated the development of communication systems and ground terminals in 2017.

A nine-day MSI insider recalled,Not long after she joined the company at that time, the first IoT satellite of Jiutian MSI had not been launched, and the team had already begun to demonstrate the plan for the satellite intelligent manufacturing production line.

Up to now, Jiutian MSI has completed 6 rounds of financing, with a total financing of more than 500 million yuan, making it the company with the most financing in the domestic private satellite sector.

The start of the Tangshan plant means that China’s commercial capital has officially entered the satellite production stage. According to Peng Yuanyuan, co-founder and president of MSI, a new round of B+ financing has also started.

02

Let satellite production “have a beat”

Satellite manufacturing mainly includes the overall manufacturing of satellites, the manufacturing of components and sub-systems. CICC has published a report entitled “Commercial Aerospace: Who Can Be China’s SpaceX? “It pointed out that the key for satellites to move from traditional “customization” to “industrialized” mass production is four changes: modular design, intelligent production, fast AIT (assembly, testing and testing), and supply chain optimization.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 8

Source: CICC Research Department

Simple understanding is to useFlexible (pulsation) production line, Intelligent equipment, fast AIT modularized common components, thereby greatly saving production time.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 9

Source: CICC Research Department

The concept of “pulsation production line” originated from aircraft manufacturing. In the past, aircraft manufacturing was based on fixed stations. Engineers assembled them in linear steps. In pulsation, the aircraft was divided into 5 relatively fixed stations.Simultaneously assemble 5 parts of the aircraft, And then move the plane forward after completion, so as to realize the simultaneous assembly of multiple planes. This movement is called pulsation.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 10

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 11

The flexible (pulsating) production line is operated in parallel like dumplings, source: CCTV

The satellite factory that Oneweb cooperates with Airbus is the first to adopt this AIT method.

An article on Oneweb’s official website details its production process:There are four module production stations on each assembly line, Each site is composed of manufacturing engineers and industrial robots to assemble each component according to standards.

Every component is modular,Four modules can be assembled together like the four sides of a box, and all production processes are carried out in parallel, So as to ensure high efficiency.

After each module is built, the AGV robot transports it to the assembly station, where the team assembles the satellites together. Each finished product is about the size of a washing machine.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 12

Oneweb assembly line and finished assembly, picture source: Astronautika.lt, OneWeb

“Satellite assembly pulsating production line is a bit like moving on a beat,”Jiutian MSI’s Tangshan factory is also making such an attemptAccording to relevant sources, the satellite deck assembly site, integrated final assembly site, and test test site are fixed, and the latent AGV robot is used as a transfer tool. The satellite components will be produced at different stations according to the set “beat”. Move between positions to ensure the flexible mass production of 50-500 kg satellites in a short cycle and low cost.

Currently, Space X and Oneweb are both self-sufficient. In a briefing in late July, Space X stated to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that Starlink currently builds 120 satellites per month. Based on this calculation,Space X has 4 Nissan satellites, which can produce 1,440 satellites a year.Although Oneweb is still undergoing bankruptcy and reorganization, the factory has previously achieved two Nissan satellites

The goal of the first phase of the Jiutian MSI project is to produce an average of 100 satellites per yearAccording to relevant sources, this is a plan made after fully evaluating the efficiency of fund utilization according to the development stage.As demand grows in the later period, it is possible to continue to increase production capacity by adding production lines, optimizing processes to improve production line operating efficiency, etc.

03

Global “competition” for space

As the United States lowers the “technical iron curtain”, the strategic significance of satellite Internet in the “new infrastructure” may be further broken.

A series of restrictions on Huawei have shown that the United States and the United Kingdom are unwilling to lose their dominant position in the communications field in the 5G era, and are trying to overtake vehicles in the corners of 6G (including satellite Internet).

Oneweb, which fell into bankruptcy in March, won in July this yearUnited KingdomGovernment andIndiaMobile network operator Bharti consortium invested 1 billion US dollars, as a result, the British government obtained “the UK’s first space sovereignty capability”, and commercial and satellite operations will be handed over to India’s largest telecommunications operator Bharti Global.

Just before the announcement of the restructuring plan,Oneweb proposed a more radical constellation plan than Space X: 48,000 satellites

Space X’s Starlink has also made breakthroughs. Just a few days ago, it successfully tested the “laser communications” of Starlink satellites in orbit for the first time, connecting two satellites with “space lasers”.Allow data exchange between each otherInstead of teleporting it back and forth to the ground,This method greatly reduces the delay and can transmit hundreds of GB of data

According to the plan, Space X will provide Starlink as a commercial service in the northern United States and southern Canada before the end of this year, and plans to “Cover the global population in 2021”。

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 13

Source: YouTube/Darth Vader’s Videos

Frequency is a scarce resource. On November 20, 2019, ITU adopted a new version of the low-orbit satellite communication frequency band allocation plan, adopting the principle of first come, first served.As long as one satellite is launched within 7 years and the number of satellites applied for is completed within 7 years, the corresponding frequency band can be occupied.This means that whoever sends the satellite to the sky first has a place in space.

04

Is it difficult or not to mass produce satellites?

However, as multi-satellite launch technology matures, manufacturing capabilities will gradually become a bottleneck for satellite Internet.

Among the listed satellite assembly companies, China Satellite is the leader. When answering an investor’s question on the “layout and planning of satellite production from a single small batch to a large-scale mass production”,China SatelliteThe answer stated that its subsidiary AerospaceDongfanghongShenzhen DongfanghongAttempts and explorations in automated assembly and automated testing have been carried out, but in view of the complexity of the satellite development process,There is still a certain gap between the formation of a pipelined industrial satellite generation model

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 14

OneWeb satellite modular assembly line for mass production, source: CICC Research Department

There are currently more than 300 satellites in orbit in China, of which 104 are produced and launched by Dongfanghong, including various satellites such as communications, remote sensing, and navigation. According to the semi-annual financial report released by China Satellite on August 24, four satellites were launched in the first half of the year.

In response to China Satellite’s response, an industry insider analyzed that in the past, China’s satellite production models were often single-piece customization, and there were few parts that could be standardized. But on the whole, it was based on technology accumulation, experience accumulation, and industrial chain layout capabilities. Look, Chinese satellites are relatively mature and complete.

“Under the premise that the country is coordinating the giant constellations, the demand for satellites will be more certain in the short term, and corresponding standards will be gradually introduced, and standardization should be the prelude to industrialization.” This person is still very optimistic about Chinese satellites.

The "satellite factory race" triggered by the constellation plan to produce 100,000 satellites like "building airplanes" 15

Source: Nine-day MSI

However, the caution of the “national team” confirms the entanglement of domestic companies with satellite factories.Previously, Geely, National Star Aerospace, Galaxy Aerospace and other companies have proposed plans to build satellite factories, but the companies that proposed mass production, in public information, only saw the nine days of MSI.

According to the above-mentioned industry insiders, there are two different opinions in the industry regarding the industrial production of satellites: People in the aerospace industry think that mass production of satellites is difficult and will encounter many difficulties, while those from traditional manufacturing are much more optimistic and think that the craftsmanship is not Complex, simpler than car manufacturing.

Complex or simple? I am afraid that we have to wait for the answer from the first batch of products from the MSI Satellite Factory next year.

Author/IT Times reporter Junhui Hao

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Typesetting / Huang Jian