- The FCC has approved SpaceX’s request to fly Starlink satellites at a lower orbit.
- SpaceX rivals, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Viasat, are pleased the FCC put in conditions for Starlink satellites.
- They had previously filed complaints about the size of the Starlink fleet and possible interference with other satellites.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday approved SpaceX’s request to fly satellites for its Starlink internet service at a lower orbit — but only under certain conditions.
Company rivals including Amazon, Viasat, Hughes Net, and OneWeb previously criticized SpaceX’s request to fly more satellites at a lower orbit. But they told Insider that the FCC’s conditions address their main concerns.
The approval means that SpaceX can eventually lower 2,814 satellites from 1,100 kilometres to 550 kilometres, although these satellites are not yet in orbit. The company already had permission to operate 1,584 satellites at this lower orbit.
Under the approval conditions, SpaceX must record how many times Starlink satellites come close to colliding with other spacecraft, and report it to the FCC every six months. Elon Musk’s aerospace company also must disclose the number of Starlink satellites that re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Those conditions also say Starlink satellites must remain below 580 kilometres to keep away from Amazon’s planned rival internet service, Project Kuiper, and accept signal interference from Project Kuiper’s satellites.
All of these rivals are working to build satellite internet networks from low-Earth orbit satellites, geostationary satellites, or a mix of both. SpaceX currently has more than 1,350 satellites currently in orbit — the most of any of the companies. Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t launched any satellites yet, but plans to have a fleet of 3,236 in total.
SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to have 42,000 Starlink satellites in space by mid-2027.
Competitors had filed various responses to SpaceX’s request for a modification to its licence. Amazon’s Project Kuiper said in January that the change of satellite position would interfere with their own satellites and “smother competition in the cradle.”
An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s decision was a “positive outcome” because it “places clear conditions on SpaceX.”
The FCC’s 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,” the spokesperson said.
Viasat, which plans on putting 288 satellites into lower orbit by 2026, was particularly concerned about the number of satellites that SpaceX was blasting into space.
Launching more satellites could lead to a greater chance of collision, resulting in more space debris, which could be a “doomsday scenario for space,” Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s executive chairman and co-founder, told Insider on April 15.
Viasat was pleased the FCC confirmed Starlink satellites must be “reliable and safe,” John Janka, the company’s chief officer of global regulatory and government affairs, told Insider in a statement on Tuesday.
Viasat was also happy that the FCC recognized the need to monitor collision risk that Starlink’s constellation raised, Janka said.
In the filing, the FCC dismissed Viasat’s concerns about the collision risk of Starlink satellites and wrote “SpaceX’s debris mitigation plan is consistent with the public interest.” Viasat said in its statement that it was disappointed with the FCC on this point.
UK satellite company OneWeb, which has 182 satellites in orbit so far, also previously argued that SpaceX’s licence approval would create interference with other satellites.
OneWeb said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s approval was “a totally different deployment to their original licence,” but it “looks forward to continuing amicable and close in-flight coordination with SpaceX.”
A spokesperson from Hughes, another satellite company that argued against SpaceX’s licence, told Insider the company was still reviewing the FCC order.