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The Eco-Friendly Alternative To Satellites Is Nearly Here
The PHASA-35 could derail the space industry.
Last month, a giant, skeletal-looking aircraft flew over New Mexico. It soared up into the stratosphere, way above any jet or cloud. There it stayed, powered by its solar panel clad wings. While this bizarre craft might look like a scaled-up version of yesteryear’s balsa wood flying toy planes, it is actually at the cutting edge of what is possible. In fact, this plane has the potential to overthrow the space industry. But how?
Let’s start with a bit of a sore topic, satellite carbon emissions. Our modern world depends on satellites; they provide the data we use in climate models and weather forecasting, monitor environmental damage, and can even track methane and carbon emissions. As such, they are crucial to our efforts to save the planet. They are also vital for our modern life, providing us with TV, internet access and GPS.
So it sucks that they have utterly gigantic carbon emissions!
Take one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. These are launched with Falcon 9 rockets, which emit a staggering 336,552 kg of carbon dioxide per launch! This will get a payload of 22,800 kg into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Starlink satellites are small and light for satellite standards, weighing only 260 kg. But if you do the maths, that means that each satellite takes worth 3,838 kg of carbon emissions just to get into orbit. Now, the entire Starlink constellation isn’t yet complete. There are holes in its global coverage, and it does struggle to provide bandwidth, so Musk wants to launch loads more. But there are already over 4,000 in orbit! This means that just the launch emissions of Starlink alone amount to over 15.4 million kg of carbon dioxide.
As a side note, this is one of the many reasons why many serious climate scientists, activists, journalists and policymakers don’t see Musk as the climate saviour many perceive him to be.
But there is a better way, Pseudo-satellites. Super high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can stay aloft indefinitely and carry out all the same services and data collection tasks as satellites. In fact, in certain situations, they can be even more efficient than satellites.
This is where BAE’s PHASA-35 comes in.
The PHASA-35 is part of BAE’s efforts to develop a “persistent and stable” pseudo-satellite drone that can operate far above the weather and other air traffic. It is massive, with a wingspan of 35 metres (114.8 feet). The top surface of these giant wings hosts a solar array that is the craft’s primary power source. These solar panels are incredibly energy dense, providing 2 kW of power per kg of solar cell; this, combined with the uber lightweight composite build of the craft, means it only weighs 150 kg. This tiny weight, combined with the large wings, allows the PHASA-35 to fly much higher than any commercial jet, as it can still create enough lift even when the air is super thin. In fact, it can fly at an altitude of nearly 70,000 ft, which is in the stratosphere! There are no clouds up there, so the PHASA-35 can bathe in sunlight all day long, giving it more than enough power through the day and night (thanks to its onboard batteries).
As such, the PHASA-35 could fly indefinitely, at least in theory.
However, the PHASA-35 is still in development. Getting such a light and delicate craft to safely fly into the stratosphere is a massive engineering and software challenge, as the craft has to navigate turbulence and harsh weather. This is why BAE is conducting multiple test flights to nail down the PHASA-35’s design.
Their most recent flight test was last month, where the PHASA-35 flew at an altitude of 66,000 ft above New Mexico for 24 hours straight. That might not sound like long, but they weren’t testing for endurance; instead, they were testing the new weather and turbulence modelling systems onboard. This allowed the PHASA-35 to plan its route up to the stratosphere and back down to Earth far better, enabling it to avoid potentially catastrophic turbulence. This system worked so well that the PHASA-35 landed without a problem and was ready to take off immediately after landing.
It seems BAE still want to do a little more testing before they really put the PHASA-35 through its paces and see just how long it can stay aloft. But they can’t be too slow, as one of their arch-rivals, Airbus, is also making a solar-powered high-altitude drone. Airbuses Zephyr looks almost identical to the PHASA-35, but it recently completed 64 days of continual flying, with a scientific payload at an altitude of nearly 70,000 ft.
So the race is on to see who can get their pseudo-satellite drone into production first.
But, how can these craft replace satellites?
Well, both can hold sensors, data logging and communications payloads. This allows them to do the same comms, surveillance, military reconnaissance, environmental monitoring and global positioning services (through triangulation with ground-based comms towers) as satellites.
What’s more, they can do the same job more efficiently. Firstly, as they are about 20 times closer to the surface of the Earth than low-orbit satellites, they get much better image fidelity and can emit stronger, more stable signals to ground-based receivers.
What’s more, unlike satellites, which have to constantly orbit and have to do complex manoeuvres to get themselves over the right locations, these pseudo-satellites can freely and quickly roam in whatever direction they want to go. This makes reconnaissance, environmental monitoring and surveillance far easier and potentially quicker. This attribute can be even better for internet or communications constellations like Starlink, as you can cluster the pseudo-satellites over where the users are and therefore need fewer units in the sky and potentially offer a better service.
So finally, how can the PHASA-35 and the Zephyr overthrow the space industry?
Well, the cost of using them will likely be way less than satellites. Satellites need to deal with massive thermal stressors, unfiltered radiation from the Sun, and the vacuum of space and their sensors and communication systems also need to work at immense distances, making their construction costly. This is why an individual Starlink satellite currently costs around $250,000. Now the PHASA-35 and Zephyr are both prototype one-off craft, so they likely cost more than this, but once manufacturing has entered scaled production, this price will plummet. What’s more, unlike satellites, you don’t have the expense of a rocket launch with a pseudo-satellite, and they can be landed for repairs and relaunched.
Moreover, in the next decade or so, governments are going to have to clamp down on carbon emissions. This can be through enforced carbon offsetting, a carbon tax, or just a plain old hard limit on how much companies can emit each year. This could make the price difference between pseudo-satellites and regular satellites even greater or significantly restrict the capacity of the space industry to meet demand, forcing a higher demand for pseudo-satellites.
So, could this weird craft spell the end of the space industry by starving them of their main source of profit (satellite launches)? Well, I don’t think so, as there are some logistical and political issues with using pseudo-satellites, and historically, the space industry has been protected by governments. Despite this, pseudo-satellite are, at the very least, are set to take a significant chunk out of the space launch market. But only time will tell if satellites will be replaced with planet-friendly solar drones.
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