The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday granted SpaceX approval to operate 2,814 Starlink satellites in lower orbits than originally planned, handing a win to Elon Musk’s satellite internet project. The decision delivered a partial defeat over its competitors, like Amazon and OneWeb, which sought to thwart the tweak over concerns it would create harmful frequency interference and ramp up risks of satellite collisions.
The FCC found that allowing lower orbits for Starlink satellites “does not create significant interference problems.” Lowering the orbits, it said, allows SpaceX to make “safety-focused” changes to the constellation, like being able to more quickly discard any dead or broken satellites by steering them toward a fiery end in Earth’s atmosphere.
The approval came with some conditions: SpaceX must coordinate with other operators to ensure signals from Starlink satellites don’t interfere with others. The company will need to provide semiannual reports to the FCC on Starlink failures. Those reports will also list any “conjunction events” or any maneuvers or close calls with other satellites.
SpaceX’s Starlink network so far has over 1,300 satellites in orbit. The company plans to launch thousands more to provide global broadband internet to rural parts of the world, for governments and consumers alike. 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 any yet, but it won FCC approval in 2020 to launch 3,236 satellites, half of which must be in space by 2026.
SpaceX won approval to operate its first group of 1,584 satellites in a lower-than-planned orbit in 2019. Almost all of those satellites are already in space, making the FCC’s decision on Tuesday timely for SpaceX’s next tranche of satellites.
The FCC’s approval means that SpaceX can lower the altitude of its next 2,814 satellites from a previously planned altitude of around 1,150 km to around 550 km, the same orbital neighbourhood as Amazon’s proposed constellation. The FCC said SpaceX’s modification application attracted “nearly 200 pleadings” from other organizations and “a significant number” presentations and additional letters, most of which pushed back SpaceX’s change.
Those organizations included rivals Amazon and OneWeb, which sought to convince the FCC that SpaceX’s proposed altitude change would create signal interference with nearby satellites and increase risks of orbital collisions — especially as SpaceX’s autonomous collision avoidance system doesn’t tell other orbital operators which way a Starlink satellite will move to avoid a crash.
Rivals also claimed the several proposed modifications to SpaceX’s original license, granted in 2018, should be treated as an entirely new constellation with a more rigorous approval process, an idea the FCC rejected in Tuesday’s ruling.
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