FCC gives SpaceX the go-ahead to drop Starlink satellite orbits by 500 kilometres or so

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted an application by SpaceX to bring its broadband satellites closer to Earth.

The authorisation reduces the number in the constellation from 4,409 to 4,408 and reduces the operational altitude for 2,814 satellites from between 1,100-1,300km to the 540-570km range used by the current Starlink fleet.

Protests from the likes of Viasat, Kepler, and Kuiper concerning issues such as interference were dismissed by the FCC. The agency also accepted SpaceX’s update orbital debris mitigation plan, noting three main elements: Starlink satellites have their own propulsion and so can manoeuvre; satellites approaching their end of mission would have their altitude lowered, thus hastening atmospheric re-entry; and finally, by dropping down to the 550km range, a satellite that could not manoeuvre itself would drop out of orbit within 25 years regardless.

“With respect to the concerns expressed by some parties about the effectiveness of SpaceX’s collision avoidance process and the information SpaceX has provided about it, none of the parties raise specific or particularized concerns that warrant additional inquiry at this time,” the agency said.

Those words will be of great comfort to the European Space Agency, which had to perform a hurried manoeuvre to dodge what it delicately referred to as a “mega constellation” (spoiler: it was Starlink).

Not counting the 60 prototype Starlink satellites, the failure rate of the craft has worried some. Data provided by SpaceX to the FCC showed an “early mission termination rate” of around 3.1 per cent (43 of 1,383 satellites). It did, however, claim to have dealt with the root cause for the failures and, coupled with on-orbit software updates, cut down on the borks. Of SpaceX, the FCC said that “as of mid-February 2021, 720 of the last 723 satellites it launched were maneuverable above injection altitude.”

Unsurprisingly, SpaceX boss Elon Musk described the change as “fair & sensible”.

A little less sensible was his earlier descent to playground taunts in response to news of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin filing a protest regarding NASA’s lunar lander contract award.

While his acolytes might dismiss Musk’s antics as Elon just being Elon, Blue Origin is not alone in its protest at the NASA decision. Fellow loser Dynetics weighed in with a protest of its own yesterday.

In space, fortunately, no one can hear you sue. ®

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