America's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted an application by SpaceX to bring some of its broadband satellites closer to Earth.
The authorisation reduces the maximum number of birds allowed in the constellation by one from 4,409 to 4,408, and reduces the operational altitude for 2,814 of the satellites from between 1,100-1,300km to the 540-570km range used by other Starlink sats. The fleet has just over 1,000 satellites in orbit right now, and it's hoped 12,000 or more will be launched eventually.
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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 updated 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."
FCC is fair & sensible. NHTSA & FAA too. 99.9% of the time, I agree with regulators!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2021
On rare occasions, we disagree. This is almost always due to new technologies that past regulations didn’t anticipate.
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.
Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2021
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. ®