FCC OKs SpaceX’s plan for 7,500 satellites in very low Earth orbit (and its rivals’ plans)

An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (OneWeb Illustration)

The Federal Communications Commission today gave the go-ahead for SpaceX to operate a constellation of more than 7,500 broadband access satellites in very low Earth orbit — and also gave the go-ahead for other satellite constellations chasing similar markets.

SpaceX’s plan to put 7,518 V-band satellites in 215-mile-high (345.6-kilometer-high) orbits meshes with a complementary plan to put more than 4,400 satellites in higher orbits for Ku- and Ka-band service. Last week, SpaceX filed an amended application seeking to put 1,584 of those satellites into 342-mile orbits instead of the originally specified 715-mile orbits.

The different orbital altitudes are meant to provide a mix of wide-angle and tightly focused transmission beams for global broadband access. SpaceX could start offering satellite internet services as soon as 2020, if all goes according to plan and the company sticks to its launch schedule.

SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., has the lead role in satellite development for the Starlink constellation. The first Starlink prototypes were launched in February.

In a news release, the FCC said today’s action will give SpaceX “additional flexibility to provide both diverse geographic coverage and the capacity to support a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users in the United States and globally.”

The FCC also granted SpaceX’s request to add two V-band channels to its previously authorized constellation: 37.5-42.0 GHz for space-to-Earth communications, and 47.2-50.2 for Earth-to-space links.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has noted the market for telecommunications services is dramatically bigger than the market for launch services, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said satellite service revenue would help fund his vision of building a city on Mars.

Three other low-Earth-orbit satellite constellations were cleared for U.S. market access in separate FCC orders:

In addition to the companies that were the subject of today’s actions, the international OneWeb consortium is planning to put hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit to provide low-cost global internet access. The FCC granted OneWeb access to the U.S. market in 2017, and OneWeb’s first satellites could be launched from Arianespace’s spaceport in French Guiana as early as next February.

The proliferation of plans for low-Earth-orbit constellations is one of the factors behind the FCC’s newly announced moves to streamline its procedures for licensing satellite operations and review its rules for dealing with orbital debris.

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