US FCC approves the launch of 7,500 Gen2 Starlink broadband satellites by SpaceX

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has received approval from the FCC to produce and launch 7,500 of its second-generation (Gen2) Starlink satellites.

While SpaceX had requested permission to launch 29,988 Gen2 NGSO satellites, the FCC only approved permission to launch a subset of those satellites. As of October 2022, the FCC reported that SpaceX has launched more than 3,500 Gen1 Starlink satellites.

The FCC says that the new satellites can use Ku- and Ka-band frequencies and can operate at altitudes of 525, 530, and 535 kilometres with inclinations of 53, 43, and 33 degrees.

The FCC has postponed ruling on SpaceX’s request to utilise E-band frequencies and tracking beacons. The commission said that it has cut down on the number of permitted Gen2 Starlink satellites in part because of the problem of orbital debris and space safety.

“To address concerns about orbital debris and space safety, we limit this grant to only 7,500 satellites, operating at certain altitudes, and note that SpaceX has committed to requesting modification of its previously granted licence for operations in the V-band so that it will incorporate those V-band operations into its Starlink Gen2 system rather than operating a separate system in the V-band.

It is noted in the FCC’s ruling that “this implies our action today does not raise the total number of satellites SpaceX is permitted to deploy, and in fact somewhat decreases it,” compared to the number of satellites SpaceX might have deployed otherwise.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a number of directives to SpaceX, including a requirement that the company report any preventative measures it has taken to prevent space collisions, coordination with NASA to maintain launch window availability, and a halt to new satellite deployment if the rate of satellite failures exceeds a certain threshold.

Many organisations with vested interests in the space industry voiced opposition to SpaceX’s proposal. These included SES Americom and O3b, Viasat, NASA and the National Science Foundation, and Amazon’s Kuiper. While the FCC did accept some of the suggestions in the form of constraints for SpaceX, they denied the request by Dish Network Corporation to essentially throw out the application.

Dish and Viasat lost a lawsuit against the FCC in August over a decision made in April 2021 that would have allowed SpaceX to launch 2,824 Starlink satellites at a range of 540 to 570 km instead of the initially proposed 1,110 to 1,325 km. According to an article published at the time by Ars Technica, their appeal was dismissed and the FCC’s judgement was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

At the same time, in October, Amazon said that it will construct a 172,000-square-foot satellite manufacturing facility in Washington for Kuiper. By the end of 2022, the company aimed to have sent 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit. It has now revised its launch timeline for the prototype satellites to early 2023. ULA’s Atlas V rocket will soon carry the first mass-produced Kuiper satellites into orbit. After that, it will employ the ULA Vulcan rocket in addition to the newer heavy-lift rockets from Arianespace and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company.

In May of 2020, SpaceX submitted a proposal for Gen2 Starlink, proposing to launch 30,000 satellites between 328 and 614 kilometres above Earth.

SpaceX’s current goal is to launch and operate a total of 29,988 Gen 2 satellites at different altitudes ranging from 340 km to 614 km, with around two-thirds, or 19,440, placed at altitudes between 340 km and 360 km, below the ISS (ISS). There would be a third of the new Starlink satellites (5,080) placed between 525 km and 535 km in altitude, which is above the ISS and below SpaceX’s Gen1 Starlink constellation.

Above the existing generation one satellites, another 468 would be placed in “shells” with retrograde inclinations and centres at 604 km and 614 km.

With the commissioner labelling Starlink’s technology as “nascent” and citing worries about its dropping download speeds, the FCC rejected Starlink’s 885 million proposal for rural broadband funding in August.