The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved SpaceX to operate 2,814 Starlink satellites in lower orbits than originally planned, bringing Elon Musk’s satellite internet project a win. The decision resulted in a partial defeat to its competitors, such as Amazon and OneWeb, who sought to thwart the tweak over concerns that it would cause harmful frequency interference and increase the risk of satellite collisions.
The FCC found that allowing lower orbits for Starlink satellites “does not cause significant interference problems.” By lowering the orbits, he said, SpaceX can make “safety-oriented” changes to the constellation, such as being able to remove dead or broken satellites more quickly by sending them to a fiery end in Earth’s atmosphere.
The approval came with a number of conditions: SpaceX must coordinate with other operators to ensure that signals from Starlink satellites do not interfere with others. The company must provide semi-annual reports of Starlink outages to the FCC. Those reports also list any “business cycle events” or maneuvers or nearby calls with other satellites.
SpaceX’s Starlink network has more than 1,300 satellites orbiting Earth to date. The company plans to launch thousands more to provide global broadband internet access to rural parts of the world, both for governments and consumers. Amazon and OneWeb are also developing their own satellite internet networks. OneWeb has launched 182 of its planned 648 satellites. Amazon’s Kuiper network hasn’t launched one yet, but it received FCC approval in 2020 to launch 3,236 satellites, half of which should be in space by 2026.
SpaceX won approval to operate its first group of 1,584 satellites in lower-than-planned orbit in 2019. Nearly all of those satellites are already in space, making the FCC’s decision Tuesday in time for SpaceX’s next batch of satellites.
The FCC’s approval means SpaceX can lower the altitude of its next 2,814 satellites from a previously planned altitude of about 1,150 km to about 550 km, the same orbit as Amazon’s proposed constellation. The FCC said SpaceX’s modifier application drew “nearly 200 pleas” from other organizations and “a significant number” of presentations and additional letters, most of which pushed back SpaceX’s change.
Those organizations included rivals Amazon and OneWeb, who tried to convince the FCC that SpaceX’s proposed elevation change would cause signal interference with nearby satellites and increase the risk of orbital collision – especially since SpaceX’s autonomous collision avoidance system doesn’t tell other orbital operators which way a The Starlink satellite will move to avoid a crash. Rivals also claimed that the various proposed changes to SpaceX’s original license, granted in 2018, should be treated as a whole new constellation with a more rigorous approval process, an idea the FCC rejected in Tuesday’s ruling.
In a statement, Amazon dismissed the FCC decision as a win, pointing to one of the FCC’s terms of the change that says SpaceX must “accept” any disturbance from Amazon’s Kuiper constellation in the future. The condition suggests that SpaceX’s 2,814 satellites should work around Amazon’s constellation, rather than Amazon having to adapt its network to SpaceX’s adaptation – a prospect the company fought against.
“This is a positive result that sets clear conditions for SpaceX, including requiring it to stay below 580 miles and accept additional interference as a result of the redesign,” said a company spokesman. “These conditions are a response to our main concerns about space security and interference, and we appreciate the work of the Commission to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low Earth orbit.”
Amazon’s fight against the SpaceX modification tumbled out of obscure FCC meetings and came out in the open in January, when Musk suspect Bezos’ company trying to trick Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that will be operational for several years at best. Amazon threw back in a corporate statement, saying, “It is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would distort competition between satellite systems” and that Musk’s company is trying to “stifle competition if they can.”
Regarding SpaceX’s autonomous collision avoidance system, which the company temporarily disabled this month to coordinate a collision avoidance maneuver with a OneWeb satellite, the FCC said none of the companies have “specific or specific concerns. which justify an additional investigation “. Questions about SpaceX’s automated system, the FCC said, “could be answered by good faith coordination between operators.”
Moving Starlink satellites to lower altitudes is a plus for astronomers, who have complained for years that SpaceX’s satellites reflect sunlight during ground-based nighttime observations and smudge images of the cosmos with intrusive streaks of light as they orbit Earth . By lowering the height of the satellites, they move further into Earth’s shadow from the sun. And in conjunction with other efforts to reduce their reflectivity, using the satellites at lower altitudes helps reduce their impact on visual astronomy, the American Astronomical Society was quoted in the FCC filing.