China Has Launched the World's First 6G Satellite. We Don't Even Know What 6G Is Yet.
- China successfully launched the world’s first 6G satellite.
- The satellite uses Terahertz waves that could send data at speeds several times faster than 5G.
- 12 other Earth-observing satellites were aboard the rocket.
On November 6, China successfully launched a Long March 6 rocket and sent a payload of 13 satellites into orbit. Among them was what has been described as “the world’s first 6G satellite”, according to BBC. The problem? The rest of the world is still several years away from agreeing what 6G will even be.
5G—what is considered the fifth, and most recent generation of cellular broadband networks—is still in its infancy. True 5G networks operate in millimeter-wave frequencies between 30 and 300 Gigahertz, which are 10 to 100 times higher frequency than previous 4G cellular network. (Some cell phone providers cheat, however, by claiming the upper end of the 4G spectrum as 5G).
The definition of these cellular generations are defined by a global partnership known as 3GPP, which has yet to clearly define 6G. Given the history of the never-ending march of technology, it's inevitable that 5G will be replaced by a new network in the future. It just isn’t clear what 6G will be.
The satellite, known as Tianyan-5, is a remote-sensing satellite jointly developed by the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu Guoxing Aerospace Technology, and Beijing Weina Xingkong Technology. In addition to Earth observations, the satellite will test a high-frequency terahertz communication payload that could send data at speeds several times faster than 5G.
As cellular networks become increasingly congested, and the demand for faster speeds and lower latency continues to grow, cellular providers are looking at higher bandwidths for the next generation of cellular technology.
Terahertz waves (THz), which are submillimeter waves sitting between microwave and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum, have been used to achieve data rates greater than 100 Gbps. Unfortunately, THz waves share an Achilles’ Heel with the millimeter waves used in 5G. Water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere is a strong absorber of terahertz radiation, limiting the range of THz applications. The same issue continues to slow the widespread development of 5G, and will likely hinder the rollout of 6G if it uses THz waves.
The new technology may also stoke similar fears faced by the rollout of 5G. The raising of 5G towers in cities caused conspiracy theories to flourish. Without any evidence, people have falsely linked the COVID-19 pandemic to 5G, which may have motivated residents of the U.K. to burn down nearly 80 cell phone towers in recent months.