An artist’s conception shows the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. (SpaceX Illustration)
The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to modify the planned orbits for future satellites in its Starlink broadband internet constellation — a move that SpaceX says will result in improved, safer operations but faced resistance from Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other rivals.
After the FCC issued its 57-page order, Amazon said its concerns were adequately addressed by the conditions that the FCC placed on its approval.
The FCC authorized SpaceX to lower the primary operational altitude for 2,814 of its satellites from an originally specified range of between 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers (684 to 746 miles) to a range between 540 and 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles). That’s in addition to 1,584 satellites previously cleared for the lower set of orbits.
SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit, and it’s in the process of expanding its beta testing program for Starlink’s satellite internet service. Sixty more satellites are due to be launched as early as Wednesday.
Eventually, SpaceX aims to offer global broadband access through a network that makes use of thousands more satellites. Those satellites are built at SpaceX’s growing facility in Redmond, Wash.
SpaceX says that the revised orbits should improve response times for the network — and that the lower orbits should make it easier to dispose of satellites once they’ve outlived their usefulness, by commanding them to take a fiery plunge through the atmosphere.
However, the newly authorized orbits come close to the 590- to 630-kilometer (367- to 391-mile) orbits that have been targeted for future satellites in Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, which also aims to provide global broadband internet access.
During the FCC’s deliberations over SpaceX’s request for authorization, Amazon and other players in the burgeoning market for satellite internet services — including OneWeb, Viasat, Kepler Communications and SES/O3b — argued that the revised orbits could create interference problems for their own satellites. They also claimed that the orbits could increase the risk of satellite collisions.
In its order, the FCC concluded that the orbital modifications would not present significant interference problems, and that the lower orbits would “have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation.” The agency said it was satisfied with SpaceX’s collision avoidance procedures, including on-orbit maneuvering.
“Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the FCC said. “We conclude that the lower elevation angle of its earth station antennas and lower altitude of its satellites enables a better user experience by improving speeds and latency.”
The FCC said SpaceX would have to file semi-annual reports on the reliability of satellite disposal procedures — and would have to ensure that the authorized satellites fly no higher than 580 kilometers, so as to reduce the risk of colliding with Kuiper’s yet-to-be-launched satellites. The FCC also noted that SpaceX was willing to accept any increased interference for its own satellites due to the orbital modification.
Amazon highlighted those conditions in a statement emailed to GeekWire.
“This is a positive outcome that places clear conditions on SpaceX, including requirements that it remain below 580 km and accept additional interference resulting from its redesign,” an Amazon spokesperson said in the email. “These conditions address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low Earth orbit.”