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Elon Musk’s SpaceX inches closer to approval for lower orbits

SpaceX asked to fly 2,824 Starlink satellites in the lower orbit, where the company already has permission to operate 1,584 spacecraft.

Elon Musk Elon Musk
Elon Musk (REUTERS)

Elon Musk’s SpaceX moved closer to winning permission to fly its satellites at a lower orbit than initially planned, after the leader of the Federal Communications Commission endorsed the proposal.

Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asked colleagues to vote for the plan.

Rivals of SpaceX, including the Project Kuiper satellite unit of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc., said the change would increase the risk of debris-spewing collisions as space becomes crowded.

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The order would grant SpaceX’s request and require conditions including those aimed at ensuring safety, said an FCC spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity because the substance of the order hasn’t been made public.

SpaceX asked to fly 2,824 Starlink satellites in the lower orbit, where the company already has permission to operate 1,584 spacecraft. With the change, the 4,408 satellites could orbit at an altitude of roughly 540 to 570 kilometers (335 to 354 miles). The zone is just below that assigned to Project Kuiper’s fleet.

Friction over the plan reflects the intense race underway as companies compete to offer broadband service from near space. Amazon in 2020 won FCC permission for 3,236 of its Kuiper satellites and has yet to launch any. Viasat Inc., Telesat Canada and OneWeb also plan fleets.

Low-Earth Orbits

The constellations are to operate in low-Earth orbits, a range that now plays host to 2,612 operating satellites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SpaceX is ahead of its competitors. It said it had 1,320 satellites in orbit on April 6, and launched another 60 the following day.

Consolidating satellites at the lower orbit would raise collision risks because large numbers would be operating in congested space, Viasat said in a filing.

“It’s like a bomb going off,” John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer for global regulatory and government affairs, said in an interview before the FCC action. “The satellites fragment, and then break into little pieces. And the debris spreads hundreds of miles.”

SpaceX said the lower orbit is safer because resistance from the atmosphere will slow its craft, ensuring they drop out of orbit and plunge to a fiery demise.

A lower orbit allows quicker internet service because the signal doesn’t travel as far. The change would, for example, let SpaceX provide broadband to rural areas “that is on par with service previously only available in urban areas,” the company said in an FCC filing.

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