A major regulatory hurdle in the way of Elon Musk’s Starlink project – his ambitious plan to launch broadband services from space – has finally been overcome.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved his spaceflight company SpaceX’s application to modify its original approval, which allowed the company to operate 4,425 satellites at an orbital of altitude 1,150 km.
The revised application requested the Commission to let SpaceX reduce the number of its Starlink constellation of satellites to 4,409 and re-position 1,584 of them to a lower orbital altitude of 550 km.
Now that the modification request has got the FCC nod, SpaceX is expected to start launching its internet-beaming, non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites from Florida, sometime next month.
Welcoming the FCC decision, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: “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 reliable and affordable broadband service.”
The approval came despite apprehensions raised by companies like OneWeb and Kepler Communications – SpaceX’s competition in space broadband services – arguing that the Starlink satellites would interfere with their own satellites if allowed to fly at a reduced altitude.
However, the Commission overruled their petitions, noting in its approval that the proposed changes did not pose any interference threat to other satellites and that it was in the public interest.
In response to objections raised about collision risks, FCC said that SpaceX had provided the commission a detailed statement, explaining that the Starlink satellites were equipped with propulsion systems and had the maneuverability to avoid collisions.
“We find no reason to defer action on SpaceX’s modification request as requested by certain commenters,” the Commission wrote in clause 22 of the approval.
“Our rules do not prohibit SpaceX’s selection of an orbital regime that is also used by other satellite operators, but SpaceX must provide a detailed discussion of how it will avoid potential collisions,” the approval read.
“SpaceX has done so in this instance. SpaceX has stated that its satellites have propulsion and SpaceX will maintain the ability to maneuver the satellites to avoid collisions.”
Elon Musk’s foray into yet another business frontier got a major boost back in February last year when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his nod of approval to SpaceX’s plan of providing broadband services using space technologies.
Pai urged his fellow commissioners to give their consent to the company’s application, highlighting the space internet technology’s potential to provide broadband services to rural America and remote parts of the country.
He said that innovative technologies were needed to “bridge America’s digital divide,” and that satellite technology could “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”
“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans,” Pai had said in a statement at the time.
“If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” he said.
Pai’s words of encouragement came at the most opportune time for the Hawthorne, California-based company, as it was preparing to launch its first set of prototype satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, in about a week’s time.
The prototypes were launched on Feb 22, 2018, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Nicknamed Tintin A and Tintin B for the mission, the satellites ultimately reached an altitude of 1,125 kilometers where they were supposed to the groundwork, or should we say spacework, for the Starlink constellation.
As a matter of fact, the decision to reduce the orbital altitude of 1,584 satellites was based on input provided by the two test satellites.
At the time, Telesat Canada and Kepler Communications, also a Canadian company, were slightly ahead in the race in so far as demo satellites were concerned, both having launched prototypes in January 2018.
While Telesat deployed its 168-kilogram smallsat with the help of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Kepler launched its smaller Cubesat atop a Chinese Long March 11 carrier rocket.
OneWeb, on the other hand, was supposed to launch its first ten operational satellites in May 2018, bypassing demo launches altogether.
The launch, however, happened on February 27 this year, and instead of ten, the Arlington, Virginia-based company put six satellites into orbit aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
According to OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, the company should have its next-gen constellation in place by 2021, ready to provide five times as much speed to consumers at 2.5 Gbps
As for the Starlink constellation, SpaceX is hopeful of making the space broadband service operational by 2025.