SpaceX gets OK to re-space Starlink orbits

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX’s request to increase the number of lanes its Starlink satellites can orbit, a modification the company said would accelerate service rollout across the United States. 

The FCC said SpaceX can field satellites in 72 rings around the Earth at 550 kilometers — three times as many as the commission approved in April. 

The commission rebuffed cubesat-operator Kepler Communications’ request to deny or postpone a decision on the respacing, and said concerns raised by fleet operator SES about signal interference were “moot.”

SpaceX has launched 120 of a planned 12,000 small broadband satellites into low Earth orbit. The company is placing its first 1,584 satellites in a 550-kilometer orbit, with later satellites planned for higher and lower altitudes. 

In August, SpaceX told the FCC that by tripling the number of lanes for those first Starlink satellites, it could build out enough coverage to offer internet access in southern states by the 2020 hurricane season. 

Satellite internet is often used in emergency response after natural disasters damage fibers and cell towers. SpaceX is building out Starlink from the poles, with coverage expanding towards the equator as more satellites get launched. 

“Grant of this application will allow SpaceX to accelerate the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, especially to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems,” the FCC said Dec. 19. 

SpaceX said the Starlink orbit modifications could cut the number of Starlink launches necessary by up to 50%. Under the revised plans, each of the 72 orbital rings will have 22 satellites instead of 66, meaning a single Falcon 9 launch can now populate approximately three rings. The company has been launching 60 satellites at a time on its Falcon 9 rockets. The next Starlink mission, and SpaceX’s last launch of the year, is planned for late December. 

FCC rejects Kepler, SES concerns

Kepler Communications, which aims to have 140 cubesats in orbit by 2023 to provide connectivity for the Internet of Things market, told the FCC that SpaceX risks an increase in “intra-constellation conjunctions” by having so many orbital lanes. SpaceX said such claims were unfounded and that Kepler had not provided any analysis to substantiate that assertion. 

The FCC agreed, saying that “without further analysis, Kepler has not provided a sufficient basis to deny this modification due to increased collision risk among SpaceX satellites.”

The FCC also rejected Kepler’s request for the commission to reconsider allowing SpaceX to operate satellites at 550-kilometers in the first place. 

Kepler is deploying a constellation at 575 kilometers, having chosen an altitude slightly above Starlink to avoid collision risks and associated conjunction alerts. 

The Toronto company announced Dec. 11 that it contracted with SpaceX to launch some of its cubesats on one or more Falcon 9 rideshare missions next year. 

SES, which operates 20 O3b-branded satellites in medium Earth orbit and around 50 satellites higher up in the geosynchronous arc, originally said SpaceX had not provided enough information about the impact more Starlink orbits would have on signal interference. 

SpaceX said much of that information, centered around equivalent power-flux density, or EPFD measurements, is already available. SpaceX also provided SES with EPFD data directly, along with Hughes, Intelsat, AT&T and Inmarsat, the FCC said. 

The FCC said it found “there is no material change to the interference environment” from the additional Starlink pathways. 

SES later complained that, while it had the data required, it was too complex and that the company lacked the manpower to analyze it. The FCC said it would not delay approving SpaceX’s Starlink modification request due to SES’s dearth of qualified personnel. 

“We find that SpaceX reasonably accommodated SES/O3b’s request for the EPFD input data and the fact that SES/O3b’s staff is not available to analyze the data, while unfortunate, does not justify a delay in the processing of this application,” the FCC said.