FCC OKs lower orbit for some Starlink satellites

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WASHINGTON — U.S. telecom regulators approved a request from SpaceX to lower the orbit of nearly 1,600 of its proposed broadband satellites.

The Federal Communications Commission said April 26 it was ok with SpaceX changing its plans to orbit those satellites at 550 kilometers instead of 1,150 kilometers. SpaceX says the adjustment, requested six months ago, will make a safer space environment, since any defunct satellites at the lower altitude would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere in five years even without propulsion. The lower orbit also means more distance between Starlink and competing internet constellations proposed by OneWeb and Telesat.

FCC approval allows satellite companies to provide communications services in the United States. The agency granted SpaceX market access in March 2018 for 4,425 satellites using Ku- and Ka-band spectrum, and authorized  7,518 V-band satellites in November. SpaceX’s modified plans apply to the smaller of the two constellations. 

By lowering the orbits of some satellites, SpaceX says it will need 16 fewer spacecraft overall, and that it will be able to achieve signal latencies as low as 15 milliseconds.

OneWeb and Kepler Communications, two companies also developing low Earth orbit constellations, objected to SpaceX’s modification request and asked the FCC to reject it. Both were rebuffed by the FCC.

The companies took issue mainly with SpaceX’s request to use Ku-band ground stations to connect with some of the lower orbiting satellites. Kepler and OneWeb said the SpaceX ground stations could cause interference with their satellite networks, which are also in Ku-band.

The FCC disagreed, saying that the closer orbit could instead reduce the risk of interference since the satellites won’t need as strong of signals to establish links with equipment on the ground.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said the 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.”

“Starlink production is well underway, and the first group of satellites have already arrived at the launch site for processing,” she said in a statement.

SpaceX launched two Starlink prototypes in February 2018, and has been testing them since, including with the U.S. Defense Department. The company said April 26 that it plans a Starlink launch no earlier than May.

SpaceX said the new 550-kilometer orbit will help accelerate deployment of its Ku- and Ka-band constellation. In its request for the new orbit, SpaceX said it intends to surpass the FCC’s deployment milestones, which call for half the constellation to be in orbit within six years of authorization (March 29, 2024) and the full system in nine years.