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SpaceX wants to rearrange its Starlink satellites for faster broadband ramp-up

Alan Boyle
An artist’s conception shows the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. (SpaceX Illustration)

SpaceX is seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commission for changes in the spacing of its Starlink broadband satellites, in order to extend internet services to a wider swath of the United States on a faster timetable.

“This adjustment will accelerate coverage to southern states and U.S. territories, potentially expediting coverage to the southern continental United States by the end of the next hurricane season and reaching other U.S. territories by the following hurricane season,” SpaceX said in an application filed on Aug. 30 and accepted last week.

If SpaceX follows that schedule, Starlink coverage could be available throughout the 48 contiguous U.S. states by November 2020, when next year’s hurricane season ends.

The implication is that the adjustment would serve the public interest because territories in the potential path of a hurricane, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, could have Starlink’s satellite broadband service available to them sooner than previously planned.

SpaceX emphasized that the shift in spacing wouldn’t require a change in the satellites’ authorized altitude or inclination, their operational characteristics or the effect on orbital debris. Instead, the 1,584 satellites covered in the application at issue would be shifted around in their orbits, tripling the number of orbital planes (to 72) but cutting the number of satellites in each plane by two-thirds (to 22).

Previously, SpaceX had planned to start with service for the northern U.S., and extend service southward toward the equator over the course of six additional launches.

SpaceX said it confirmed the flexibility of its deployment process by studying the performance of its first 60 Starlink satellites, which were launched in May. Three different orbital planes can be populated with a single launch, streamlining the process, the company said.

“The proposed respacing would require fewer launches of satellites — perhaps as few as half — to initiate service to the entire contiguous United States (as well as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas Islands),” SpaceX said.

The FCC filing focuses on U.S. coverage, but SpaceX noted that the respacing would widen coverage for other equatorial regions of the world as well.

SpaceX said it analyzed the potential impact on four other broadband mega-constellations that have won FCC authorization — OneWeb and Kepler Communications in the Ku-band, and Telesat and SES’ O3b service in the Ka-band. The analysis showed that the spacing shift would have a “negligible effect” on those systems, and that any initial radio interference effect “would be ameliorated as SpaceX continued to deploy its constellation,” the company said.

For what it’s worth, Amazon is currently seeking FCC authorization for its Project Kuiper broadband constellation. In its filing, SpaceX made no mention of Amazon’s plans.

On other issues, SpaceX said it would coordinate its operations with other satellite operators to avoid collision risks, and reported that it was reaching out to astronomers to assess the impact of its satellites on celestial observations.

“There is no reason to believe that respacing the satellites would have any material impact on this ongoing analysis of reflectivity (albedo), but SpaceX remains committed to working with the astronomy community to achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution,” the company said.

If history is any guide, SpaceX’s application is likely to spark some pushback from other mega-constellation operators. This month’s controversy relating to a close encounter between a Starlink satellite and a European wind-measuring satellite illustrates how complicated satellite shifts can get.

SpaceX has FCC authorization to launch nearly 12,000 satellites, including the 1,584 spacecraft covered by the most recent filing. It says it’s planning “several more launches before the end of 2019.” Other filings suggest the next Starlink launch could come as soon as next month.

During last week’s World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was quoted as saying she hoped 24 Starlink missions would be launched in 2020. If 60 satellites are launched on each mission, that’d amount to 1,440 Starlink spacecraft, plus whatever gets launched this year.

In advance of May’s milestone launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the Starlink constellation would be “useful” with 400 satellites and “economically viable” with 1,000 satellites.

Starlink satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash.

Another satellite operator with Seattle-area connections, BlackSky, also has an application before the FCC. That application seeks the go-ahead to expand BlackSky’s Earth-observation constellation from the four satellites currently in orbit to 16 satellites, plus replacements.

The next four satellites are to be launched in November by an Indian SSLV rocket, with eight more expected to follow by the end of next year.

BlackSky’s filings confirm that venture capitalist PeterThiel’s Mithril Capital holds the largest share of voting stock for BlackSky’s parent company, Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries — 24.4743%, to be exact. They also confirm that Jason Andrews is no longer Spaceflight Industries’ CEO.

Hat tip to Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica.

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