Updated 7:30 p.m. Eastern with comment from Amazon, Viasat and Elon Musk.
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved a modification of SpaceX’s license for its Starlink constellation, allowing the company to operate more than 2,800 additional satellites in lower orbits.
In an order and authorization published April 27, the FCC said it will allow SpaceX to move 2,814 satellites from orbits in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to 540 to 570 kilometers. That is the same orbital range that the company is using for its current constellation of about 1,350 satellites in operation today.
The agency rejected efforts by several companies, including others planning low Earth orbit constellations and those operating geostationary satellite systems, to block the modification or force SpaceX to be considered in a new round of proposed systems, losing its priority.
“Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems,” the FCC said.
Under the approval, the size of the Starlink constellation will decrease by one satellite, from 4,409 to 4,408. That includes the 1,584 satellites previously authorized to operate at orbits of 550 kilometers at inclinations of 53 degrees, and 10 authorized in January to operate in polar orbits. They will be joined by 2,814 satellites, previously approved for higher orbits, operating at inclinations of 53.2, 70 and 97.6 degrees and at latitudes between 540 and 570 kilometers.
SpaceX’s proposal was the subject of intense debate at the FCC, with nearly 200 filings submitted. Many satellite operators opposed the modification on grounds ranging from increased electromagnetic interference to a greater risk of satellite collisions and creation of orbital debris.
The FCC, by and large, rejected those claims. “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 order states. “We conclude that operations at the lower altitude will have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation. We also find that SpaceX’s modification will not present significant interference problems, as assessed under Commission precedent.”
In particular, it concluded that allowing SpaceX to operate more satellites in that lower orbit would not, in the aggregate, harm the orbital environment. Some companies, such as Viasat, had argued that Starlink satellites suffered a high failure rate that threatened to increase the risk of collisions in LEO.
“SpaceX’s satellite failure rate is a matter of significant contention in the record,” the FCC noted, alluding to back-and-forth filings on the issue in recent months by SpaceX, Viasat and others. The FCC noted that, according to SpaceX, the company had suffered a “disposal failure rate” of 1.45%, and that 720 of the last 723 satellites launched (as of mid-February 2021) were maneuverable after launch.
FCC said that “it will be important for SpaceX to maintain a high disposal reliability rate for its satellites in order to limit collision risk.” As a condition of the modified license, SpaceX must file semiannual reports on the number of “conjunction events” and those that required a maneuver to avoid a collision, as well as satellites that the company has disposed. SpaceX would also have to file reports if there are three or more disposal failures in any one-year period.
The order requires SpaceX to operate its Starlink satellites at altitudes no higher than 580 kilometers. That was a condition requested by Amazon to avoid close approaches to its Project Kuiper satellites, and one SpaceX had stated in filings that it would accept.
The FCC, as part of the order, also rejected requests that the agency perform an environmental assessment as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Some astronomers had also proposed that Starlink be subject to an environmental assessment, or EA, because of the impacts that the satellites have on astronomical observations.
The FCC concluded that “the issues raised in the filings do not warrant preparation” of an environmental assessment. It offered several reasons for rejecting those requests, from the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration does its own environmental assessments for launches of Starlink satellites to “whether NEPA covers sunlight as a source of ‘light pollution’ when reflecting on a surface that is in space.”
However, the FCC urged SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. “Although we do not find that the record before us merits preparation of an EA under NEPA, we conclude that it nonetheless would serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research endeavors,” it stated. “Accordingly, we will continue to monitor this situation and SpaceX’s efforts to achieve its commitments in this record.”
Viasat, which strongly opposed the SpaceX modification request, had a mixed reaction to the FCC decision. “We are pleased the Commission confirmed that Starlink satellites must be reliable and safe, and also recognized the need to assess the cumulative (aggregate) collision risk presented by the entire Starlink constellation,” John Janka, chief officer for global regulatory and government affairs at Viasat, said in a statement to SpaceNews.
“We are disappointed that the Commission failed to fulfill its statutory obligations under NEPA and did not follow the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to a science-based approach to protecting the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate, space, the well-being of U.S. citizens, and critical research that relies upon radio and optical astronomy,” he added.
“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 told SpaceNews. “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.”
SpaceX did not issue a statement about the FCC’s decision, but in a tweet, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk called the FCC “fair & sensible.”