space satellite constellations

SpaceX gets regulatory nod to launch 7000+ satellites

SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch thousands of satellites into orbit, adding to its proposed satellite constellation. Meanwhile, the FCC has launched a review into managing space debris mitigation.

A satellite constellation is a system of multiple satellites working together for certain purposes (normally telecommunications). A constellation of satellites provides far more effective coverage of the Earth’s surface than individual satellites.

SpaceX began development on its Starlink satellite constellation project in 2015; this project aimed to mass produce and launch nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit to provide complete worldwide broadband connectivity, including to underserved regions and raise funds for more ambitious projects. Musk has said he hopes to have the Starlink constellation in operation by the mid-2020s. The company successfully launched two prototype satellites in test flights earlier this year and the first batch of Starlink satellites is due to launch in 2019.

In March, the FCC approved plans to deploy the first 4425 satellites. Now, the federal regulator has approved plans to launch a further 7518 satellites into very low-Earth orbit of approximately 350km. This proximity to the Earth’s surface will shorten transmission paths, reducing delay and requiring less powerful signals. The satellites will operate using V-band frequencies (radio frequencies of 40-75GHz), rather than the more standard K-band frequencies (radio frequencies of 12-40GHz).

“The Commission’s action provides SpaceX with addition 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,” an FCC statement said.

The FCC has also approved satellite launches for satellite constellations planned by Telesat, LeoSat and Kepler, although these other companies had proposed fewer than 150 satellite launches each.

Appropriately, the FCC announcement coincided with the launch its first major review into the handling of space debris since 2004; a 2011 report by the National Research Council warned the quantity of space debris is at a “tipping point” and called for international regulations to tackle the problem, which poses a serious threat to essential space-based infrastructure.

“We’re proposing new rules and disclosures to mitigate the threat posed by orbital debris,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “Indeed, we’re exploring six ways to address this problem, including changes in satellite design, better disposal procedures, and active collision avoidance.”

Major space agencies, including Nasa and ESA, are already engaged in efforts to capture existing space debris, while space companies are increasingly considering how satellites nearing the end of their useful lifetimes may be cleared from orbit.

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