SpaceX gets FCC approval to add 7,518 more satellites to its Starlink constellation

SpaceX’s application to add thousands of satellites to its proposed Starlink communications constellation has been approved by the FCC, though it will be some time before the company actually puts those birds in the air.

SpaceX is just one of many companies that the FCC gave the green light to today at its monthly meeting. Kepler, Telesat and LeoSat also got approval for various services, though with 140, 117 and 78 satellites proposed respectively, they aren’t nearly as ambitious in scale. Several others were approved, as well, with smaller proposals.

SpaceX officially applied to put these 7,518 satellites into orbit — alongside the already approved 4,409 — back in March of 2017. Last month the FCC indicated it planned to approve the request by circulating a draft order (PDF) to that effect, which it today made official.

These satellites would orbit at the extremely low (for satellites) altitude of around 340 kilometers — even lower than the 550-kilometer orbit it plans to put 1,584 satellites in from the other group.

Low orbits decay quickly and satellites may only last a couple of years before they burn up. But being closer to the Earth also means that latency and required power for signals is considerably lower. It requires more satellites to cover a given area, but if managed properly it’ll produce a faster, more reliable connection or augment the system in areas where demand is high. Since SpaceX has only launched two test satellites so far, this is more or less theoretical, though.

The satellites would also be using V-band radio rather than the more common Ka/Ku band often employed by this general type of service, which as it points out will keep those popular bands unclogged as satellite numbers multiply.

Launches of the new system should begin some time next year if the new management at Starlink wants to keep their jobs. It would take quite a long time to get enough satellites into orbit that the service would work even in bare-bones fashion, but it isn’t bad going from idea to minimum viable product in a handful of years, when that MVP has to be hundreds of satellites actually in space.

You might be wondering whether this all will produce rather a lot of trash in orbit, since all these launches and the satellites themselves produce waste of various kinds. Well, SpaceX is one of the good ones here, as not only is it pursuing reusable first stages instead of having them float off and break up, but low orbit satellites like these are the least likely to clutter space. Rocket Lab, which just raised $140 million after sending up its own first commercial mission to space, is also very focused on this problem.

The FCC is, for some reason, one of the major authorities on orbital debris, and is currently looking at revising its rules.

“It’s been over a decade since we last reviewed our orbital debris rules, and in that time, the number of satellites in use has increased dramatically,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement accompanying the news. “So it’s high time for the Commission to take up this important topic once again.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the driving forces behind the effort, was lukewarm on the current effort.

The agency needs to “do more than just accelerate this problem by rubber stamping every next-generation satellite application that comes our way using yesterday’s orbital debris rules,” she wrote in a statement, and today’s rulemaking proposal is “only a timid start.”

“Moreover, I am concerned it does not set this agency up for success in the future. It misses the forest for the trees. It also muddles the path forward. This is not the leadership we need as we embark on a new era in space. We need clear guidance from this agency.”

The proposed rules are not close to final or complete, but should be public soon — we’ll take a good look at them when that happens and see how the FCC plans to fight the orbital debris problem before it turns into a crisis.