China successfully launched its first communications satellite equipped with an ultra-thin flexible solar wing. This satellite is part of China's ambitious plan to develop a 13,000-satellite broadband megaconstellation in low-Earth orbit, in direct competition with SpaceX's Starlink project.
According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks launches on his website, there are currently over 4,500 Starlink satellites in orbit. In the next 10 years, the figure is expected to reach 42,000.
The Lingxi-03 satellite, developed by Beijing-based start-up GalaxySpace, was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre in Shanxi province. The launch took place on Sunday (23 July), with the satellite being carried by a Long March 2D rocket.
One of the key features of the Lingxi-03 satellite is its bendable solar panel, which measures only 1 mm thick. This is comparable to the thickness of a credit card and is just 5 per cent of the thickness of a traditional solar panel.
When folded inside the rocket, the solar array has a thickness of 5 cm. However, once the satellite is operational in orbit, the solar panel expands to an impressive 9 m long and 2.5 m wide.
Prior to this launch, China had utilised similar solar panels to power its Tiangong space station.
According to Zhu Zhengxian, the chief technology officer of GalaxySpace, who spoke to China Science Daily, the solar wings being used are small, lightweight, and easy to store. They are more efficient at absorbing solar energy compared to traditional solar panels and particularly suitable for large-scale stackable satellite launches.
The Lingxi-03 satellite is equipped with a digital payload capable of handling high volumes of data, reaching tens of gigabytes per second.
Its main objectives include testing technologies related to next-generation low-orbit broadband communications, active thermal control, and stackable satellite release, as told to CCTV by Hu Zhao, the satellite's chief commander.
Hu further said that the Lingxi-03 satellite possesses the capabilities of a ground-based station and can analyse a huge amount of user information.
GalaxySpace, established in 2018, is the first company in China solely dedicated to satellite-based internet services. In September, the company raised funding that valued it at $1.58 billion.
In March 2022, GalaxySpace successfully launched six communications satellites into low-Earth orbit for an experimental network called the "mini-spider constellation." The company conducted successful 5G network tests as part of this initiative.
China and various Western companies have proposed megaconstellation plans, which could result in a total of over 60,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit. This increase in satellite numbers could lead to a more crowded and potentially more dangerous environment.
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