SpaceX is now allowed to operate satellites in lower orbits

28 Apr 2021

Image: © Brandon/Stock.adobe.com

The FCC has approved SpaceX’s request to operate Starlink satellites at lower orbits – as long as they don’t interfere with others.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted SpaceX approval to operate almost 3,000 Starlink satellites in lower orbits than originally planned following a request submitted last year.

SpaceX’s Starlink project is creating a network of thousands of satellites to form a new global broadband system.

The satellites will be used to make high-speed, low-latency broadband available to people around the world, particularly in rural areas. The Black Valley in Co Kerry has been chosen as a pilot location for Starlink.

SpaceX wants to operate the next batch of satellites at a lower-than-planned orbit because it argues this it will give the Starlink constellation a much lower latency in signal, cutting down transmission time.

The decision yesterday (27 April) means the next 2,814 Starlink satellites to be launched can orbit at 550km from Earth. In April 2019, the FCC also approved a request to operate a batch of Starlink satellites at at a lower orbit than originally planned.

Space wars

SpaceX’s latest request was met with challenges from other companies, including Amazon.

The tech giant, which has its own internet satellite project named Kuiper, filed a complaint saying SpaceX’s request was too significant to be considered as a simple modification. It highlighted concerns that the modification would increase interference to Kuiper and other satellite systems.

However, Amazon said FCC’s decision is a “positive outcome” because while it gives SpaceX the approval it needs, there are conditions.

As part of the approval, SpaceX must coordinate with other operators to ensure signals from Starlink satellites don’t interfere with others. The company will also need to provide semi-annual reports to the FCC on Starlink failures, which will include any close calls with other satellites.

This marks another battle over space travel between Amazon and SpaceX. Amazon’s commercial space company Blue Origin has taken umbrage with NASA’s recent decision to award SpaceX with a $2.9bn contract to build a lunar lander.

“[NASA’s] decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers, America’s return to the moon,” Blue Origin said earlier this week.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

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