Connecting the Dots | Starlink versus the space huggers

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SpaceX’s plans for nearly 30,000 next-generation Starlink satellites might have edged closer to approval after judges dismissed an attempt to halt the constellation on environmental grounds.

Viasat, a satellite broadband rival, had used the lack of an environmental assessment to challenge the FCC’s decision to let SpaceX fly more satellites in its current generation at lower altitudes than initially planned.

The operator has made a similar call for a thorough environmental review of Starlink’s second-generation plans before allowing them to proceed.

While environmental assessments are routine for rockets, they are rare for satellites.

The FCC has treated many of its activities, including the licensing of satellite systems, as exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions.

Viasat and others argue this exemption implemented decades ago did not foresee the in-orbit debris and other environmental risks posed by megaconstellations like Starlink.

SpaceX has already launched more than 3,000 Starlinks to date for what is easily the world’s largest constellation.

However, a U.S. appeals court ruled Aug. 26 that Viasat failed to show how the FCC should have been compelled to conduct an environmental review under NEPA.

Viasat’s concern that Starlink satellites could collide with others “is much too speculative,” the court said.

Viasat also argued that deploying its own satellites is more technically complex and expensive because of SpaceX’s sprawling network.

But this and other harms Viasat outlined are economic, the court ruled, and fall outside the zone of interests protected by NEPA.

Viasat described the ruling as “a setback for both space sustainability and environmental protection.”

SpaceX, meanwhile, has accused Viasat of using legal channels to stifle innovation and competition in the satellite broadband market. According to SpaceX, operating Starlinks at lower altitudes reduces their natural orbit decay time to ensure no persistent debris in the unlikely event a satellite fails in orbit.

Despite losing the appeal, Viasat has vowed to fight on to improve space sustainability and is turning its attention to Starlink’s second generation.

This Gen 2 constellation is not only far larger than the 4,408 Ku-band and Ka-band satellites SpaceX is cleared to fly at around 550 kilometers above Earth, it would be spread across altitudes of between 340 and 614 kilometers to improve network performance.

Viasat and astronomers say flying significantly more satellites even closer to Earth would exacerbate their concerns about Starlink’s light pollution.

“Viasat has raised concerns about several proposed NGSO systems and the adverse impacts that they would have on space sustainability and the environment,” said Jarret Taubman, vice president and deputy chief government affairs and regulatory officer at Viasat.

“That said, the massive expansion of the Starlink system being proposed by SpaceX is particularly concerning, underscoring the need for careful environmental review by the FCC.”

When the FCC rejected a petition from Viasat to assess Gen 1’s environmental impact, the regulator urged SpaceX to find ways to mitigate the brightness of its satellites.

SpaceX is undertaking measures that include adding visors to Starlink satellites to prevent sunlight from reflecting off them.

Although it’s unclear whether these and SpaceX’s other sustainability-focused efforts will help give it the green light for Gen 2, the appeals court’s decision potentially reduces the likelihood that Viasat could compel an environmental review to slow or block the network.

“I would think it reduces the chances, since it sets a precedent,” said one senior space executive unconnected to the proceedings who did not want to be named.

Gen 2, which envisages satellites weighing five times more than Gen 1 at around 1,250 kilograms, is a critical element of SpaceX’s future. CEO Elon Musk said in an email leaked late last year that SpaceX risked bankruptcy if it could not enhance a “financially weak” Gen 1 with Gen 2 — although the company has since raised billions of dollars from investors.

Gen 2 also provides a platform for future innovation. Under a partnership with T-Mobile announced Aug. 25, SpaceX plans to add large antennas to Gen 2 satellites to provide connectivity directly to standard mobile phones.

While beta services planned for next year would initially be limited to basic messaging in the United States, SpaceX hopes to add voice and data capabilities globally one day.

It’s unclear how much sway this Gen 2-enabled vision to connect phones beyond the reach of U.S. cell towers will hold with the FCC.

On Aug. 10, the FCC pulled the plug on $900 million in rural subsidies to help SpaceX expand high-speed broadband to unserved homes and businesses across the United States. The FCC said SpaceX had failed to show it could meet target speeds and other requirements needed to unlock the funds. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr slammed the decision, saying it was made “without legal justification” and without a vote from the regulator’s commissioners.

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.