FCC approves SpaceX's plan to operate Starlink satellites at lower altitudes – Spaceflight Now


SpaceX launched two test satellites for Starlink in February 2018. The Starlink demonstration ships were launched as secondary loads with the Spanish radar observation satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: SpaceX

The Federal Communications Commission has granted a request from SpaceX to begin launching spacecraft for the Starlink broadband network for a lower than originally planned orbit, canceling competitors' protests and eliminating a major regulatory barrier prior to the launch of the first batch of satellites of the Cape Canaveral Internet in May.

The regulator approved SpaceX's proposal on Friday to pilot more than 1,500 Starlink satellites at an altitude of 341 miles, or 550 kilometers, instead of the originally planned 1,150-kilometer orbit.

"This approval underscores FCC's confidence in SpaceX's plans to deploy the next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service," said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. "Starlink's production is well underway and the first group of satellites has already arrived at the launch site for processing."

Starlink satellites will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Complex 40 launch pad in mid-May. Starlink's mission is next in line for SpaceX's launch manifesto at the Florida Spaceport after takeoff of a Dragon supply vessel to the International Space Station, a launch currently scheduled for no later than Friday.

Generally, SpaceX takes a few weeks to prepare for another flight from the same launch pad.

Archive photo of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the launch pad of the Cape Canaveral 40 Complex. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX, led by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, did not say how many Starlink satellites will be launched on the Falcon 9 rocket. Company officials also did not disclose information about the size or mass of each spacecraft.

Starlink satellites are built and manufactured at a SpaceX facility in Redmond, Washington.

The Falcon 9 rocket will be heard northeast of Cape Canaveral, aiming at a deployment altitude a little lower than the operational orbit of the 341-mile-high satellites.

The FCC also granted SpaceX authority last week to use six ground stations to test communications loads on the first set of Starlink satellites, starting with the launcher's orbit maneuver to the final operational altitude.

With FCC approvals last week, the first segment of SpaceX's multi-layered Starlink satellite fleet will include 1,584 spacecrafts arranged in 24 orbital planes with a 53-degree slope to the equator.

The first two Pathfinder Starlink satellites launched last year to prove SpaceX's antenna design and electric propulsion system will be used for tuning and orbital maintenance over the life of each spacecraft.

"This experience demonstrated the performance of the technology built by SpaceX, such as its phased array antennas and its powerful Hall propulsion system," SpaceX wrote in last year's request to the FCC to modify its Starlink license to the lowest altitude.

The satellites, named Microsat 2A and 2B, were launched as backloads on a California Falcon 9 rocket with Spain's radar-observation satellite in February 2018.

"These experimental satellites also provided important operational lessons, such as the benefits of operating at different altitudes and the practical experience of coordinating and avoiding neighboring orbital objects," the application says. "Even with continued operations with these two experimental satellites, SpaceX is already poised to leverage this successful demonstration to take the next step in its satellite development."

"SpaceX will use elements of the Microsat spacecraft as the basis for an efficient and cost-effective architecture that will allow rapid acceleration of the deployment of the global constellation," SpaceX wrote to the FCC.

SpaceX received an initial FCC green light for its planned Starlink network in March 2018. At that time, regulators approved SpaceX's proposal for a Starlink constellation consisting of 4,425 satellites transmitting on Ku-band and Ka-band frequencies in more 1,100 kilometers above the earth.

The FCC granted in November approval for SpaceX to operate a complementary network of 7,518 additional Starlink satellites in 340-km-high orbits, transmitting at V-band frequencies.

Starlink's fleet will use inter-satellite laser links to deliver Internet connections around the world without routing the signals through a ground station.

Days before the second FCC approval, SpaceX filed a request to modify the license issued in the previous March. The company proposed the transfer of 1,584 of Starlink satellites originally originally scheduled to fly at an altitude of 714 miles to a lower orbit of 341 miles in height.

The FCC decision Friday formally approved the move to the SpaceX license.

In their request to modify the license last year, SpaceX officials said the lower operating altitude for the first batch of Starlink satellites would help ease concerns about space debris. If a Starlink retransmission station in the lower orbit fails, the atmospheric drag will bring the satellite back to Earth within about five years, and most of the spacecraft will burn during re-entry.

Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium and a policy advocate to address the problem of space debris growth, tweeted in November that he was pleased with SpaceX's proposal to launch the first Block of Starlink satellites in a lower orbit.

"Premature failures at the highest altitude would have been there (for the satellites) for over 1000 years being detritus makers," desch tweeted. He added that SpaceX's decision to first populate the lower orbit was "very responsible".

Iridium operates one of the largest fleets of commercial satellites currently in orbit, with one-ton voice 75 and a data relay spacecraft flying 485 miles (780 km) above Earth.

SpaceX also argued that the lower orbit allows a greater separation between the Starlink fleet and the large "mega-constellations" planned by OneWeb, Telesat and others. Having satellites positioned closer to Earth also provides users with broadband connectivity with reduced latency or time lag, and the spacecraft user bundles will be more refined, reducing network spectrum requirements.

There are compensations for the lower orbit. More Starlink satellites will be needed to cover the same geographical area, and the spacecraft will have to fight against the effects of atmospheric drag.

Despite the limited coverage offered by the lower orbit, SpaceX redesigned its network architecture to reduce the total number of Starlink Ku-band and Ka-band satellites from 4,425 to 4,409.

The first set of Starlink satellites will transmit signals only at Ku band frequencies, allowing SpaceX to accelerate network deployment while continuing to develop dual-band Ku technology and Ka band antenna, SpaceX officials said.

Earlier this year, SpaceX filed a request for up to 1 million user terminals for customers to connect to the Starlink network.

Starlink's biggest short-term competitor is OneWeb, backed by Japanese company SoftBank, Virgin Group, Airbus, Coca-Cola, Intelsat, Mexican conglomerate Grupo Salinas and other investors.

OneWeb launched its first six broadband satellites in February on a Russian Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

The first phase of the OneWeb fleet will have 648 satellites to orbit the Soyuz rockets of Kazakhstan, Russia and French Guiana, under the auspices of a multi-launch agreement with Arianespace. OneWeb has built a new satellite factory at Exploration Park near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to produce the refrigerator-sized spacecraft on an assembly line.

Telesat is planning a smaller network of broadband satellites in Earth's low orbit. The Telesat LEO fleet will initially include 117 satellites, but could grow to hundreds of others.

The first technology demonstration satellite of Telesat's broadband project was launched in January 2018. Earlier this year, Telesat selected Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, launched in 2021, to distribute many of the constellation satellites in orbit several releases.

Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who is also designing a constellation of more than 3,000 broadband satellites under a codenamed Kuiper project.

The scale of the Starlink project is immense.

SpaceX estimates that it will cost $ 10 billion to develop and launch thousands of Starlink satellites using its Falcon rocket family, design and deploy user terminals and build the infrastructure needed to connect a global network.

The company was founded in 2002, based on Musk's fortune, and has made steady business in launching satellites and loads for commercial customers, NASA and the US military.

But just like the development of SpaceX's next-generation SpaceX supercar, the Starlink fleet is a new venture for SpaceX, requiring an infusion of funding as the company builds a large satellite production facility and addresses the development of terrestrial terminals. a challenge that often accompanies the timeline of new satellite communications programs. SpaceX is looking for outside investments to help boost the development of the Starlink network.

Fundraising included venture capital investments and a $ 250 million high yield loan negotiated last year. Google and Fidelity Investments channeled $ 1 billion into SpaceX in 2015 for a combined 10% stake in the company.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that SpaceX recently closed a $ 500 million fund-raiser and promptly launched another fundraising campaign to try to secure another $ 500 million for the Starlink project.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: StephenClark1.


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