TAMPA, Fla. — A U.S. appeals court Aug. 26 upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s year-old decision to let SpaceX deploy more satellites at lower altitudes to improve the Starlink broadband constellation’s performance.
The FCC’s decision allowed SpaceX to operate all its approved Ku-band and Ka-band satellites at around 550 kilometers above the Earth.
Previously, SpaceX was required to deploy nearly two-thirds of its constellation between 1,100 and 1,300 kilometers, adding more latency for the network.
Nearly two-thirds of the 4,408 satellites SpaceX has permission to deploy in Ku-band and Ka-band are currently in orbit, according to astronomer and spaceflight analyst Jonathan McDowell.
Satellite TV broadcaster Dish Network and broadband competitor Viasat had challenged the modification to SpaceX’s regulatory license to operate at lower altitudes.
Viasat argued that the FCC should have conducted a thorough environmental review of SpaceX’s constellation before letting it operate more satellites at lower altitudes in low Earth orbit (LEO).
Satellite systems have a categorical exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the FCC and other federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions.
The FCC implemented the exemption in the mid-1980s based on analysis at the time that individual satellite launches would not have measurable effects on the environment.
However, Viasat says the recent emergence of Starlink and plans for other sizable constellations has created new environmental considerations that need to be addressed.
The appeals court said Viasat and The Balance Group, an environmental organization that had joined the operator in the legal action, did not meet requirements to have standing for an appeal on their claim that the FCC violated NEPA by allowing Starlink to lower its altitude without an environmental assessment.
While Viasat worries that Starlink’s satellites could collide with others and cause debris, the court said this “theory of injury is much too speculative.”
“To ground standing on the risk of future harm, a party must show both that the risk is substantial and that the challenged action substantially increases it,” the court said, and “Viasat posits too many unlikely contingencies to clear those hurdles.”
Viasat had also argued that SpaceX’s constellation makes it more technically complex and expensive for Viasat to launch its own satellites.
The court said these and other harms cited by Viasat are economic and fall outside the zone of interests protected by NEPA.
“We believe that the Court’s decision is a setback for both space safety and environmental protection,” Viasat said in a statement after losing the appeal.
“Had the Court forced the FCC to properly grapple with the complicated issues surrounding deployment of mega-constellations in LEO, we believe harmful impacts that otherwise may persist for decades or even centuries to come could have been avoided.”
Dish had argued that the FCC refused to consider reports from experts that claimed SpaceX’s altitude change would interfere with the broadcaster’s satellites.
The court said these reports “use a different method for assessing interference than what binding regulations require.”
The FCC considered the possibility of interference, the court added, and found that changing the altitude of Starlink satellites “will not increase interference” to satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
Viasat also opposes SpaceX’s request for FCC approval to operate a second-generation constellation of nearly 30,000 satellites, which would operate between 340 and 614 kilometers in LEO, on environmental grounds.
SpaceX has separate approval from the FCC permission to deploy 7,500 LEO satellites operating in V-band.
This article was updated Aug. 30 to add more details from the appeals court’s decision.