Capitalism in space: The FCC today approved SpaceX proposed gigantic 4,425 Starlink satellite constellation, designed to provide internet access worldwide, while also imposing a deadline for its launch and requiring the company to provide detailed de-orbit plans.
SpaceX will have to launch at least half of its constellation of Ku- and Ka-band satellites within six years of today, per the agency’s recently revised rules, or its authorization freezes at the number of satellites in operation at that date. The FCC in September relaxed its deadline, giving operators nine years to launch their full constellation, but even those rules are stricter than what SpaceX would refer. The launch-provider-turned-satellite operator asked the FCC for an okay to launch 1,600 satellites in six years — just over a third of its full constellation.
SpaceX said the FCC’s deadline was “impractical” and that it could start broadband service without the full constellation. The FCC said no, but gave SpaceX permission to re-submit a waiver request in the future. SpaceX said in October it plans to start service with 800 to 900 satellites.
SpaceX’s constellation is the largest of all the applicants, generating concern about its potential to enshroud the Earth in a cloud of space debris. Fleet operators OneWeb, Spire, SES and Space Norway all expressed concern about how SpaceX will protect the space environment when operating so many satellites. But weighing more heavily with the FCC was NASA, which said a constellation as large as SpaceX’s likely needs to meet more stringent standards than what NASA recommends for de-orbit reliability. NASA’s reliability standard is that at least 90 percent of satellites can deorbit properly after their mission is complete.
The FCC did say that SpaceX will have the right in the future to request a waiver on the launch deadline.