SpaceX gets low-level satellite orbits that Amazon opposed

Elon Musk’s SpaceX won permission for lower orbits from the Federal Communications Commission, which rejected claims from rivals such as Amazon‘s Kuiper Systems that the change would increase the risk for collisions in space.

The FCC, in an order adopted on a 4-0 vote, said lower flights would improve the speed and reduce signal lag for SpaceX’s internet-from-space service. It told SpaceX to tightly control the altitude of satellites closest to those planned by Project Kuiper.

“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,” the FCC said in the order, released Tuesday.

The new trajectory “should result in lower collision risk” in part because atmospheric drag slows satellites at lower altitudes, leaving them to plunge out of orbit, the FCC said. Its order lets SpaceX reduce planned altitudes for some satellites by roughly half.

Friction over the SpaceX plan for its constellation of 4,408 satellites reflects the intense race under way as companies compete to offer broadband service from near space. Amazon in 2020 won FCC permission for 3,236 of its Kuiper satellites and has yet to launch any. Viasat, Telesat Canada and OneWeb also plan fleets.

SpaceX asked to fly 2,824 Starlink satellites in the lower orbit, where the company already has permission to operate 1,584 spacecraft. The requested change would leave all the satellites at an altitude of roughly 540 to 570 kilometers (335 to 354 miles). The zone is just below that assigned to Project Kuiper.

Amazon in a statement called the FCC decision “a positive outcome that places clear conditions on SpaceX.” Those include the mandate to remain below Kuiper spacecraft, and another to accept radio interference from Kuiper to which SpaceX is vulnerable due to operating at a lower altitude.

“These conditions address our primary concerns,” Amazon said.

The satellites are to operate in low-Earth orbits, a range that now plays host to 2,612 operating satellites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SpaceX is ahead of its competitors. It said it had 1,320 satellites in orbit on April 6, and launched an additional 60 the following day.

A lower orbit allows quicker internet service because the signal doesn’t travel as far. The change would, for example, let SpaceX provide broadband to rural areas “that is on par with service previously only available in urban areas,” the company said in an FCC filing.