US court backs FCC decision to let SpaceX fly Starlink sats at lower altitudes

Judges just didn't buy Viasat's in-orbit prang fears

Judges in the US have upheld the FCC's decision to allow SpaceX Starlink satellites to fly at a lower altitude.

SpaceX was last year given permission to launch more than 2,000 of its broadband-beaming satellites at 540 to 570 km above Earth instead of its usual 1,100 to 1,300 km range. It was hoped that flying the hardware lower would boost internet service to Alaska and other remote areas, and help prevent the build up of space junk and other objects in a relatively narrow band of low Earth orbit.

But competing satellite providers, such as Viasat, Amazon, and Dish, weren't happy. In an attempt to overturn the FCC's decision, Viasat, an environmental org calling itself The Balance Group, and Dish sued the communications regulator, arguing officials failed to consider, among other things, the potential environmental effects. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) federal agencies are required to assess the environmental impact of their decisions, such as constructing buildings or military bases.

Viasat claimed Starlink satellites would increase the risk of collision in orbit, and it would have to spend more time and resources to avoid "competitive injury" with SpaceX.

Court of Appeals judges in the District of Columbia considered this challenge, and last week upheld the FCC's approval for SpaceX to launch its satellites into lower altitudes. For one thing, the panel noted that Viasat's complaints were way too speculative and theoretical to be taken seriously. For instance, the satellite operator was concerned about the damage SpaceX's Starlink birds could cause to its own sats, yet it's unlikely Viasat's satellites would be involved in a Starlink crash.

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"Viasat operates only a single satellite that flies close to SpaceX's constellation, and it does not seriously contend that the probability of a direct collision is high enough," the judgment [PDF] reads. "This theory of injury is much too speculative. To ground standing on the risk of future harm, a party must show both substantially increases it."

The FCC estimated that the chances of a Starlink collision event to be between 1-in-44 and 1-in-200 over the next century, depending on the number of satellites in the sky.

Arguments claiming the regulator failed to carry out environmental assessments as necessary under NEPA were also thrown out; the judges said Viasat and The Balance Group failed to demonstrate they had suffered an injury, or that an injury was impending, and that NEPA even covered those injuries. "Because neither Viasat nor The Balance Group has met both requirements, we do not reach the merits of their claim," the panel wrote.

The FCC also said [PDF] Starlink satellites flying at lower altitudes meant that they could be removed from orbit over a shorter time frame, since they could enter the Earth's atmosphere more quickly and disintegrate. There are other benefits, too: flying closer to ground means they will spend less time reflecting sunlight at night to minimize unwanted glare in astronomical observations.

SpaceX has launched more than 2,500 Starlink birds so far. The Elon Musk-run corporation announced it was teaming up with T-Mobile US to provide cellphone network coverage. The first step involves launching text messaging services, and will later expand to support calls and mobile data.

It is not clear, however, whether SpaceX has been authorized to deploy the necessary type of satellite required for this type of coverage, according to some experts. ®

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