FCC clears SpaceX to launch nearly 1,600 Internet transmission satellites to a lower orbit

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching a communications satellite from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, April 2019.
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching a communications satellite from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, April 2019.
Photo: John Raoux (AP)

The Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX's plans to fly a fleet of Internet transmission satellites, Starlink, to a "lower orbit than originally planned," Verge reported Saturday.

SpaceX originally planned to launch 4,425 Starlink satellites (its long-term plan is to launch about 12,000) at a range of approximately 690-825 miles (1,110 to 1,325 kilometers). That plan got approval from the FCC in early 2018. But then, according to test data, the company decided it would like 1,584 of those satellites to orbit at a much lower height of about 340 kilometers (550 miles). SpaceX argued that the lower elevation would allow it to reduce latency to 15 milliseconds and reduce the total number of satellites by 16 without reducing coverage, Verge wrote. He also said that the lower altitude would allow any satellite that loses its orbit to start burning quickly instead of clogging Earth's orbit with space debris, something that worried a recent NASA study.

Satellite internet firm OneWeb and satellite operator Kepler Communications came forward against the plan, claiming that Starlink could cause signal interference at the lowest elevation and possibly even pose a collision risk. In its approval, the FCC found that "the modification proposed by SpaceX does not present significant interference problems and is in the public interest."

The FCC added that SpaceX affirms "because all its satellites have propulsion and are maneuverable to avoid collisions, they are considered to represent a zero risk for any other satellite in this orbital region", as well as that the company says "operational satellites at 550 ° C " altitude in km will guarantee a 100% success rate in post-mission elimination within 5 years, even baduming the worst conditions. " He also concluded that estimating the collision risks of SpaceX in the event that the propulsion systems of a satellite become inoperable "is within accepted limits … even in the worst case scenarios that go beyond of any realistic scenario. "

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Verge in a statement: "This approval underscores the FCC's confidence in SpaceX's plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with a service reliable and affordable broadband ".

While the transmission of satellites to the network seems like a good idea on paper, many other companies have had problems with their own similar projects. The Facebook Athena Project, after failing to make the drones work properly, became satellites with the aim of launching one at the beginning of 2019 (it has not done so). Google is working on the Loon Project, which aims to transmit LTE to remote regions of the world with hot air balloons, but has faced numerous accidents and faces a significant patent demand. Amazon has announced its own initiative.

There is no guarantee that any of these projects will meet short-term expectations. As Gizmodo has pointed out previously, a possible result, even if successful, is that technology companies will take the opportunity to create monopolies in countries with the least Internet infrastructure, which will generate a series of negative externalities in the process.

SpaceX has a tight timeline: as Verge wrote, "The approval of this constellation by the FCC is conditional on SpaceX being able to launch at least half of these satellites in the next six years." For its part, SpaceX told Verge in his statement. that it has already produced a lot of Starlink satellites and is on track to start launching them in May.

[The Verge]

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