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FCC approves Starlink license modification

SpaceX filed the modification request a year ago, asking to move upcoming satellites to an altitude of under 570 km.

The Federal Communications Commission has approved a modification of SpaceX’s license for its Starlink constellation, allowing the company to operate more than 2,800 additional satellites in lower orbits.

In order and authorization, the FCC wrote: “We conclude that grant of the SpaceX Third Modification Application will serve the public interest. Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems.”

SpaceX filed the modification request a year ago. The company requested that, after its first 1,584 satellites are in orbit, it change the next 2,814 satellites to an altitude of under 570 km from its previous plan of an altitude above 1,100 km. The FCC’s approval comes at a key moment for SpaceX, as the company has nearly 1,400 satellites in orbit and likely would have had to halt its rapid launch campaign without the FCC’s authorization.

SpaceX’s proposal was the subject of intense debate at the FCC, with nearly 200 filings submitted. Many satellite operators opposed the modification on grounds ranging from increased electromagnetic interference to a greater risk of satellite collisions and the creation of orbital debris.

SpaceX’s competitors also argued the change was too significant for the FCC to treat it as a simple modification, saying it should instead be included in a broader processing round with new satellite systems.

The FCC, by and large, rejected those claims. “Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the order states. “We conclude that operations at the lower altitude will have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation. We also find that SpaceX’s modification will not present significant interference problems, as assessed under Commission precedent.”

In particular, it concluded that allowing SpaceX to operate more satellites in that lower orbit would not, in the aggregate, harm the orbital environment. Some companies, such as Viasat, had argued that Starlink satellites suffered a high failure rate that threatened to increase the risk of collisions in LEO.

The order requires SpaceX to operate its Starlink satellites at altitudes no higher than 580 kilometres. That was a condition requested by Amazon to avoid close approaches to its Project Kuiper satellites, and one SpaceX had stated in filings that it would accept.

“We further conclude that this modification does not create significant interference problems that would warrant treatment of SpaceX’s system as if it were filed in a later processing round,” the FCC wrote.

The FCC’s order requires that SpaceX issue a report twice a year that includes the number of Starlink conjunction events – meaning near misses with other satellites – in the past six months, as well as the number of Starlink satellites that were disposed of or re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.