SpaceX gets approval to launch 7,000 internet-beaming satellitesNovember 15, 2018
The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX’s request to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites into orbit, a major regulatory hurdle the company needed to clear in its plans to provide internet coverage from space. The approval is in addition to one that SpaceX received from the FCC in March for a constellation of 4,425 satellites. That means the company now has permission to launch its full satellite internet constellation called Starlink, which adds up to nearly 12,000 spacecraft.
Starlink is SpaceX’s ambitious project to provide constant, global internet coverage from orbit. The spacecraft in the constellation are meant to do a synchronized dance above the Earth, allowing for every part of the Earth’s surface to have a direct line of sight of at least one satellite at all times. The project is expected to cost $10 billion to develop, and SpaceX aims to have the constellation operational by the mid-2020s.
The FCC approved SpaceX’s request along with the licenses of three other companies — Telesat, LeoSat, and Kepler Communications — which want to put constellations of 117, 78, and 140 satellites into orbit, respectively. Altogether, today’s approval would add at least 7,859 satellites into orbit.
“I’m excited to see what these services might promise and what these proposed constellations have to offer,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said today during the meeting in which the constellations were approved. “Our approach to these applications reflects this commission’s fundamental approach to encourage the private sector to invest and to innovate and allow market forces to deliver value to American consumers.”
SpaceX’s constellation is meant to operate at relatively low orbits, which should help cut down on the latency in signals. The 7,518 satellites that were just approved are meant to operate at altitudes between 335 and 346 kilometers, while the original 4,425 satellites are supposed to operate a bit higher. Originally, SpaceX had planned to operate the first constellation in orbits ranging between 1,110 to 1,325 kilometers. But last week, the company filed a revised plan with the FCC, asking for permission to fly more than 1,500 satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers.
SpaceX’s approvals are conditional, though. In order to bring each mega-constellation into full use, the company needs to launch half of the satellites within the next six years. That means the clock is ticking to get nearly 6,000 satellites into orbit by 2024. SpaceX says it will launch its first batch of Starlink satellites in 2019.
So far, SpaceX has only launched two test satellites for the constellation — TinTin A and B. The two satellites went into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket in February, and have remained in orbit ever since. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted that the TinTin A and B were operating just fine after launch, though the plan for the spacecraft has changed somewhat. Originally, SpaceX had hoped to raise the two spacecraft to a higher orbit, but they’ve both remained at the original orbit where they were deployed. The change may be due to the fact that SpaceX wants to modify the orbits of some of its spacecraft now.
Given the sheer size of SpaceX’s constellation, as well as the ambitions of other satellite companies hoping to provide internet coverage from space, the FCC and other space organizations have become concerned with how this influx of spacecraft might raise the risk of collisions in space. That’s why the FCC also agreed today to revise its guidelines for how companies should mitigate orbital debris in space — rules that date back to 2004. The new rules may require satellite operators to change how they de-orbit their satellites, as well as make certain modifications to their spacecraft.
Above all, it’s clear that the satellites in these large constellations will need to be taken out of orbit — reliably and on time — in order to keep the space environment a safe place for spacecraft to operate. In a recent study, NASA estimated that 99 percent of these satellites will need to be taken out of orbit within five years of launch. Otherwise the risk of in-space collisions will increase dramatically.