SpaceX spat with Viasat: Rival accused of abusing legislation to halt Elon's Starlink expansion

Viasat's 'newfound environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn'


SpaceX has accused a satellite telecommunications rival of trying to a weaponise environmental legislation to hamper the expansion of its Starlink internet service.

Elon Musk's business said this in a response filed on Monday [PDF] in an ongoing legal dispute with Viasat, Dish Network, and consulting firm The Balance Group. The trio are contesting SpaceX's recently given Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval to operate Starlink satellites at a lower altitude.

In a ruling published late April, the FCC allowed SpaceX to move 2,814 existing satellites from their current orbits of 1,100km to 1,300km to between 540km to 570km above Earth's surface. This would make its satellites more effective and improve coverage in rural areas, as well as in the polar regions.

Viasat has argued the move will increase the risk of collisions from wayward satellites and the increased proliferation of orbital debris. It claimed the approval process had been forced through, and further alleged that the FCC had failed in its obligation to review the approval under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Also on Monday, the Balance Group filed a supporting motion for placing a stay on the FCC's order [PDF], pending a judicial review.

In the filing, it supported Viasat's concerns about potential radio frequency interference, as well as interference with astronomical research.

The NEPA legislation compels federal agencies to determine whether a proposal would have a "significant effect on the human environment." For efficiency, it allows agencies to identify actions that are unlikely to have an adverse effect, and waive any environmental investigation.

For its part, SpaceX has accused [PDF] Viasat of attempting a "transparent bid to co-opt the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the procedure for extraordinary stay relief as weapons of commercial warfare."

"Viasat's newfound environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn. Viasat failed to raise any environmental concerns in connection with any other satellite authorization, including SpaceX's authorization to operate Starlink satellites at a different altitude and its prior request," said SpaceX's counsel.

Also on Monday, the FCC put forward its arguments for opposing Viasat's motion to stay [PDF], arguing SpaceX had mitigated the risk of orbital debris, pointing to the manoeuvrability of its satellites.

"SpaceX's orbital debris mitigation plan explained that the satellites are capable of maneuvering to avoid collisions, and that the lower altitude helps minimize debris by ensuring satellites more quickly descend into the atmosphere and are destroyed at the end of their useful lives," the agency wrote in its own legal filing.

It also highlighted design decisions made by SpaceX to ensure its Starlink satellites disintegrate upon re-entry, reducing the risk of human casualties "to zero." ®

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