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SpaceX outlines first orbital Starship test flight

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has disclosed details for the first orbital test flight of its next-generation Starship launch system, but the company is still far short of the regulatory approvals needed for the mission.

SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission May 13 for special temporary authority for communications required to support a Starship test launch from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The license would cover communications for what the company called an “experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle” launching from Boca Chica.

In an attachment to the application, SpaceX provided the first details about what it calls “Starship Orbital – First Flight.” The mission would involve a launch of the overall Starship vehicle, including the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage, from Boca Chica.

“SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” the company said in the application. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

As outlined in the application, the Super Heavy booster will shut down 169 seconds after liftoff, separating from the Starship upper stage two seconds later. Super Heavy will fly back not to Boca Chica, but instead to a location 32 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, touching down 495 seconds after liftoff. The application didn’t state if the booster would land on a platform, such as an oil rig SpaceX is converting for such uses, or splash down into the ocean.

Starship, which ignites its engines five seconds after stage separation, will shut down its engines 521 seconds after liftoff, having achieved orbit. The vehicle, though, will complete less than one full orbit before entering and landing in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai approximately 90 minutes after liftoff.

The application notes that SpaceX will perform a “powered, targeted landing” but not on any kind of ship. Instead, it will make “a soft ocean landing.” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet that the company is planning an ocean landing to avoid hazards should the vehicle not survive reentry. “We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” he wrote.

The application did not specify when the company expects to perform this launch, beyond a six-month “requested period of operation” that starts June 20.

SpaceX can’t carry out the launch, though, until it receives a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.

That assessment is ongoing, and the FAA has not given schedule for completing it. The FAA states on its website that the public will be given an opportunity comment on the draft assessment, which will recommend whether the FAA needs to then prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement. The FAA could otherwise determine there would be no significant impact to the environment from Starship/Super Heavy launches, or that those impacts can be mitigated with appropriate measures, the agency explained in a set of frequently asked questions about the ongoing environmental review.

“SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesman noted May 14.

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FCC approves Starlink license modification

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved a modification of SpaceX’s license for its Starlink constellation, allowing the company to operate more than 2,800 additional satellites in lower orbits.

In an order and authorization published April 27, the FCC said it will allow SpaceX to move 2,814 satellites from orbits in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to 540 to 570 kilometers. That is the same orbital range that the company is using for its current constellation of about 1,350 satellites in operation today.

The agency rejected efforts by several companies, including others planning low Earth orbit constellations and those operating geostationary satellite systems, to block the modification or force SpaceX to be considered in a new round of proposed systems, losing its priority.

“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.

Under the approval, the size of the Starlink constellation will decrease by one satellite, from 4,409 to 4,408. That includes the 1,584 satellites previously authorized to operate at orbits of 550 kilometers at inclinations of 53 degrees, and 10 authorized in January to operate in polar orbits. They will be joined by 2,814 satellites, previously approved for higher orbits, operating at inclinations of 53.2, 70 and 97.6 degrees and at latitudes between 540 and 570 kilometers.

SpaceX’s proposal was the subject of intense debate at the FCC, with nearly 200 filings submitted. Many satellite operators opposed the modification on grounds ranging from increased electromagnetic interference to a greater risk of satellite collisions and creation of orbital debris.

The FCC, by and large, rejected those claims. “Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the order states. “We conclude that operations at the lower altitude will have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation. We also find that SpaceX’s modification will not present significant interference problems, as assessed under Commission precedent.”

In particular, it concluded that allowing SpaceX to operate more satellites in that lower orbit would not, in the aggregate, harm the orbital environment. Some companies, such as Viasat, had argued that Starlink satellites suffered a high failure rate that threatened to increase the risk of collisions in LEO.

“SpaceX’s satellite failure rate is a matter of significant contention in the record,” the FCC noted, alluding to back-and-forth filings on the issue in recent months by SpaceX, Viasat and others. The FCC noted that, according to SpaceX, the company had suffered a “disposal failure rate” of 1.45%, and that 720 of the last 723 satellites launched (as of mid-February 2021) were maneuverable after launch.

FCC said that “it will be important for SpaceX to maintain a high disposal reliability rate for its satellites in order to limit collision risk.” As a condition of the modified license, SpaceX must file semiannual reports on the number of “conjunction events” and those that required a maneuver to avoid a collision, as well as satellites that the company has disposed. SpaceX would also have to file reports if there are three or more disposal failures in any one-year period.

The order requires SpaceX to operate its Starlink satellites at altitudes no higher than 580 kilometers. That was a condition requested by Amazon to avoid close approaches to its Project Kuiper satellites, and one SpaceX had stated in filings that it would accept.

The FCC, as part of the order, also rejected requests that the agency perform an environmental assessment as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Some astronomers had also proposed that Starlink be subject to an environmental assessment, or EA, because of the impacts that the satellites have on astronomical observations.

The FCC concluded that “the issues raised in the filings do not warrant preparation” of an environmental assessment. It offered several reasons for rejecting those requests, from the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration does its own environmental assessments for launches of Starlink satellites to “whether NEPA covers sunlight as a source of ‘light pollution’ when reflecting on a surface that is in space.”

However, the FCC urged SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. “Although we do not find that the record before us merits preparation of an EA under NEPA, we conclude that it nonetheless would serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research endeavors,” it stated. “Accordingly, we will continue to monitor this situation and SpaceX’s efforts to achieve its commitments in this record.”

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SpaceX and OneWeb spar over satellite close approach

ORLANDO — An alleged close approach between satellites from OneWeb and SpaceX led to a meeting between the companies and the Federal Communications Commission, but the companies don’t completely agree on what resulted from that discussion.

OneWeb officials said in early April that they had to move one of their satellites to avoid a close approach with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. The OneWeb satellite, OneWeb-0178, was one of 36 satellites launched March 25 on a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. As the spacecraft was raising its orbit, it was projected to come close to Starlink-1546, a satellite launched in September 2020 and currently in an orbit of about 450 kilometers.

OneWeb said that initial estimates of the potential conjunction provided by the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) March 30 projected that the two satellites would come within about 60 meters of each other, with a 1.3% chance of a collision, on April 3. Chris McLaughlin, head of government affairs for OneWeb, told The Verge, which first reported about the conjunction, that SpaceX disabled the automated collision avoidance system on that Starlink satellite to allow the OneWeb satellite to maneuver safely.

McLaughlin, though, later told The Wall Street Journal that SpaceX informed the company it couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and thus switched off the automated system on that satellite. “SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” he told the newspaper, comparing Starlink satellites to electric cars produced by Tesla, which, like SpaceX, is led by Elon Musk: “They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether.”

SpaceX did not publicly comment on those reports, but did arrange a meeting with both OneWeb and the FCC’s International Bureau, which regulates communications satellites. That April 20 meeting, according to a filing SpaceX made with the FCC later that day, discussed the satellite conjunction and SpaceX’s own assessment of the event.

“Despite recent reports to the contrary, the parties made clear that there was no ‘close call’ or ‘near miss,’” SpaceX stated. “SpaceX and OneWeb agreed that they had conducted a successful coordination, resulting in a positive outcome.”

SpaceX included in its filing its chronology of the conjunction, discussing email exchanges and phone calls between the companies. In one call April 2, SpaceX noted that LeoLabs, which tracks objects using its network of radars, predicted a probability of collision well below the threshold of 1-in-100,000 used to decide whether to perform a maneuver. A comparison of orbital data between OneWeb and SpaceX briefly showed a higher probability of collision, including the 1.3% chance of collision reported, but SpaceX said OneWeb acknowledged it underestimated the uncertainty in its orbital projections.

In a second call, less than two hours later, OneWeb decided it wanted to perform a collision avoidance maneuver because it could not wait for additional data. OneWeb asked SpaceX to turn off the automated collision avoidance system on Starlink-1546, which SpaceX did, and OneWeb then performed a maneuver of OneWeb-0178 on April 3.

By the time of the maneuver, though, the probability of a collision had already become insignificant based on refined orbital data. “In other words, the probability of collision was already below any threshold that required a maneuver and kept dropping,” SpaceX stated.

The actual close approach, based on data from 18 SPCS, was 1,120 meters. LeoLabs, using its own data, estimated a close approach of 1,072 meters.

“SpaceX expressed its disappointment to the Commission that OneWeb’s officials chose to publicly misstate the circumstances of the coordination,” SpaceX stated in its filing. “SpaceX was therefore grateful that OneWeb offered in the meeting with the Commission to retract its previous incorrect statements.”

OneWeb, though, has yet to make such a retraction. Contacted about the SpaceX filing, OneWeb spokesperson Katie Dowd referred SpaceNews to OneWeb’s own FCC filing on April 21, in response to the one from SpaceX.

“OneWeb made no such offer to retract any previous statements made to the press,” the company said in the filing by its legal firm, Sheppard Mullin. “OneWeb simply noted during the meeting that press coverage can sometimes be erroneous in certain respects – a fact noted by SpaceX itself when requesting the FCC meeting in the first place. OneWeb stands by its story as reported to the press.”

OneWeb added that SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment for those earlier news reports. Dowd said that OneWeb did not plan to comment further on the matter.

OneWeb did say in its filing that it found the “exchange of facts and data between the engineering teams for SpaceX and OneWeb to be outstanding” in the meeting with the FCC. “As demonstrated yesterday during the discussion, OneWeb is committed to full cooperation with SpaceX and all other satellite operators on physical coordination of satellites.”

“Coordination did not work very well”

This is not the first controversy involving a close approach between a Starlink satellite and another spacecraft. In September 2019, the European Space Agency had to maneuver its Aeolus satellite when it determined a Starlink satellite would pass too close to it. ESA complained that it had problems coordinating with SpaceX, which the company blamed on a confluence of factors that it subsequently addressed.

“This was actually indeed a close call, and coordination did not work very well,” recalled Rolf Densing, ESA director of operations, during an April 19 press briefing as part of the 8th European Conference on Space Debris.

That has since improved. “We are, ever since, in close contact with SpaceX. I must say they are very cooperative,” he said. “We have, on a bilateral basis, found a modus vivendi with close cooperation on how to avoid this ever happening again.”

This latest incident comes as SpaceX seeks permission from the FCC to modify its existing license to lower the orbits of 2,825 satellites authorized by that license from altitudes of more than 1,000 kilometers to about 550 kilometers, joining the 1,584 satellites already approved to operate in the lower orbit. SpaceX has called the proposed change a “safety upgrade” of its constellation since, at the lower orbits, satellites will have shorter lifetimes.

That proposal faces strong opposition from a number of other companies, including OneWeb, Viasat, Hughes Network Systems and Amazon, who argue that the change would have effects ranging from spectrum interference with other satellite systems to effectively making it impossible for other satellite constellations to operate in similar orbits.

Those companies, and SpaceX, have made a series of claims and counterclaims in filings attached to the FCC docket about SpaceX’s license modification. SpaceX, in its April 20 filing, argued that OneWeb used the publicity surrounding the close approach to meet with FCC commissioners, “demanding unilateral conditions placed on SpaceX’s operations.” OneWeb said on April 14 it met with one FCC commissioner, Nathan Simington, and his staff, proposing that SpaceX be required “to closely coordinate collision avoidance events with other operators and not rely solely on its automated system.”

An argument from another satellite operator appeared to make its way into the April 21 Senate confirmation hearing for Bill Nelson, the nominee for NASA administrator. “Do you think we need rules and policies to ensure that large commercial constellations are designed and operated in a way that ensures a very low aggregate collision risk level over their lifetimes?” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) asked him.

That specific terminology echoes a proposal made by Viasat to the FCC April 12 as a condition for granting SpaceX’s license modification. “SpaceX should be required to design, deploy, and operate its modified 4,408-satellite constellation so the aggregate collision risk posed by the entire constellation does not exceed a suitable limit over its 15-year license term,” Viasat proposed.

“Yes, ma’am,” Nelson replied, but then broadly discussed the general threats posed by orbital debris, including debris created by a 2007 Chinese antisatellite weapons test, rather than the risk from Starlink or other commercial constellations.

Asked by Lummis what level of risk NASA would be willing to accept from commercial space activities, Nelson called for development of active debris removal technologies to dispose of failed satellites. “If it’s dead, then there ought to be a provision for getting it down,” he said. “That’s something that’s already started and it ought to be accelerated.”

SpaceX has faced the most scrutiny for its satellite constellation, but even ESA’s Densing suggests the company is not as bad as its critics make it out to be. “It looks at first glance like Elon Musk is the evil guy, because he is polluting space,” he said. “Actually, space is there for everybody. I must say, I’m actually a bit jealous. I must congratulate him on this great idea of starting this megaconstellation.”

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FCC grants permission for polar launch of Starlink satellites

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission will allow SpaceX to launch 10 Starlink satellites into polar orbit on an upcoming mission, but deferred a decision on a much broader modification of SpaceX’s license.

In an order published Jan. 8, the FCC granted SpaceX permission to launch 10 Starlink satellites into a 560-kilometer orbit with an inclination of 97.6 degrees. Those satellites will launch on a Falcon 9 no earlier than Jan. 14 as part of Transporter-1, a dedicated smallsat rideshare mission.

SpaceX had been lobbying the FCC for weeks for permission to launch Starlink satellites into a polar orbital plane as the FCC considers a modification of the company’s license to lower the orbits of satellites originally authorized for higher altitudes. That included a Nov. 17 request to launch 58 satellites into a single polar orbital plane, citing “an opportunity for a polar launch in December” that it did not identify.

In a Jan. 5 filing with the FCC, SpaceX said it spoke with FCC officials the previous day about this request. “SpaceX confirmed that if it receives the proper authorization, its forthcoming Transporter-1 mission will include 10 Starlink satellites targeted for operation in polar orbits,” the company stated.

SpaceX argued in filings that adding at least some satellites into polar orbits would allow it to begin service in Alaska, which is not in the coverage area of existing Starlink satellites launched into mid-inclination orbits. The company said in its November filing that “launching to polar orbits will enable SpaceX to bring the same high-quality broadband service to the most remote areas of Alaska that other Americans have come to depend upon, especially as the pandemic limits opportunities for in-person contact.”

Other satellite operators opposed the move. In a Nov. 19 filing, Viasat said that “commercial expediency” was not a sufficient reason for the FCC to grant SpaceX permission for launching satellites into polar orbit, raising concerns about the reliability of Starlink satellites and the orbital debris hazards they pose.

The FCC, in its order, concluded that allowing SpaceX to launch the 10 Starlink satellites into polar orbits was in the public interest. “We find that partial grant of ten satellites will facilitate continued development and testing of SpaceX’s broadband service in high latitude geographic areas in the immediate term pending later action to address arguments in the record as to both grant of the modification as a whole and the full subset of polar orbit satellites,” the order stated.

It rejected Viasat’s opposition to the request, stating that allowing the 10 satellites “does not present concerns in connection with the issues raised by commenters.” That included orbital debris concerns about failed Starlink satellites. “We conclude that the addition of these ten satellites is unlikely to have any significant incremental effect on the operations of other satellites in the relevant orbital altitudes,” the order stated.

The FCC, though, deferred a decision on SpaceX’s overall license modification request to lower the orbits of those satellites. In the order, the FCC didn’t state when it expected to rule on the full request.

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Viasat asks FCC to perform environmental review of Starlink

WASHINGTON — Viasat has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to perform an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, arguing that the satellite system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth.

In a Dec. 22 filing, Viasat formally requested that the FCC conduct either an environmental assessment or more rigorous environmental impact statement of Starlink before approving a SpaceX request to modify its existing license for the system so that it can operate nearly 3,000 more satellites in lower orbits.

Satellite systems have long had what’s known as a categorical exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies like the FCC to assess the environmental impacts of their actions. That exemption, implemented in the mid-1980s by the FCC, was based on analysis at the time that launches of individual satellites would not have measurable effects on the environment.

The size of SpaceX’s Starlink system, currently authorized for approximately 12,000 satellites, changes that calculus, Viasat argued in its petition. “But given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX’s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX’s proposed modification are significant,” the company stated.

“Relying on the Commission’s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest,” Viasat continued (emphasis in original.)

Part of the petition addresses orbital debris. Viasat has been a strident critic in FCC filings in recent months about the reliability of Starlink satellites and concerns that satellites that fail in orbit could add to the growing debris population in LEO. The company has cited statistics that claimed a failure rate as high as 7%, although that included many of the original “v0.9” Starlink satellites launched in May 2019 that SpaceX has been deliberately deorbiting over the last several months.

SpaceX has countered that its on-orbit failure rate is far lower, but Viasat argued that the FCC should assess the overall risk of increased collisions as part of an environmental review. “The Commission cannot take SpaceX’s word for it that the thousands of satellites it is seeking to pack into a lower orbit will not materially increase the risks of collisions and produce excessive space debris — especially because SpaceX knows that when its satellites do collide with other space objects and fragment or fail, it can always launch more,” it stated.

Viasat’s argument for an environmental review goes beyond orbital debris. It claims that both the launch and reentry of Starlink satellites poses environmental hazards, from the production of ozone-destroying chemicals by launch vehicles to chemicals released in the atmosphere when satellites burn up on reentry and debris that reaches the ground.

The petition cites research by The Aerospace Corporation on atmospheric impacts of launches and reentries. At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month, the organization presented research that concluded that the rise of satellite megaconstellations could increase the mass of satellites reentering the atmosphere from about 100 metric tons a year to as much as 3,200 metric tons.

The Aerospace study, though, only found a potential for environmental impacts caused by an increasing number of reentering satellites, and said that further study on what those impacts could be is needed. “Our preliminary work simply suggests that given the present and anticipated increase in large constellations, there is potential for environmental impact, and further study is therefore recommended,” William Ailor, technical fellow with the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, told SpaceNews.

A third line of argument for an environmental review is the effect Starlink will have on the night sky. The petition noted concerns astronomers have voiced since the first cluster of Starlink satellites launched in 2019 that the constellation could interfere with astronomical observations, and could also have cultural impacts.

Satellites in lower orbits, Viasat added, would be brighter. “The Commission’s decision thus will directly affect the amount of light pollution in the environment, placing NEPA responsibilities squarely on the Commission’s shoulders,” the company stated.

Viasat’s petition is the not the first attempt to request an environmental review of Starlink. In April, Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the FCC’s categorical exemption for satellite systems. It cited in particular light pollution concerns from an unnamed satellite constellation with a description similar to Starlink. A paper published in a law review journal in January also proposed invoking NEPA regarding the impacts of Starlink on astronomy.

The GAO hasn’t publicly responded to the senators’ request. However, astronomers have since reported they’re pleased with the level of cooperation with SpaceX to mitigate the impacts of the Starlink constellation on their observations. That has included the incorporation of visors on Starlink satellites to prevent sunlight from reflecting off the satellites and thus reducing their brightness.

“SpaceX is leading the charge in terms of trying to understand these issues and designing mitigations on their satellites,” Tony Tyson, chief scientist of the Vera Rubin Observatory, said at an August briefing about a workshop held earlier this summer on the topic.

SpaceX hasn’t commented on the Viasat FCC filing. The company has held a series of ex parte meetings with FCC staff this month on its proposed modification of its Starlink license, according to filings with the commission, including a request to launch a set of Starlink satellites into a sun-synchronous orbital plane to take advantage of an unspecified “upcoming polar launch availability.”

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FCC approves OneWeb sale as Starlink begins public beta

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved the sale of OneWeb to the British government and Bharti Global Oct. 27, as rival SpaceX started a public beta test of its Starlink system.

In a public notice, the FCC announced it has approved the transfer of OneWeb’s satellite and ground station licenses to its new owners as the company seeks to exit its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. OneWeb requested the transfer Sept. 2, and there were no public comments on the request.

A federal bankruptcy court approved the sale of OneWeb to the British government and Bharti Global Oct. 2, three months after they submitted a winning bid of $1 billion for the company. OneWeb said at the time of the court approval that the sale would close once it received “customary regulatory approvals” from agencies like the FCC. OneWeb expects to have the sale wrapped up by the end of the year.

According to the FCC notice, the British government and Bharti Global will each have a 42.2% stake in the reorganized OneWeb. SoftBank, a leading investor in OneWeb prior to the Chapter 11 filing, will have a 12.3% stake. SoftBank owned 37.41% of OneWeb before the Chapter 11 filing.

Hughes Network Systems, which owned 2.6% of OneWeb before the Chapter 11 filing, announced in July it would invest $50 million into the reorganized company. The FCC notice states that the terms of that investment have yet to be finalized, but that it will not have a “meaningful impact” on the ownership stakes of the British government and Bharti Global.

OneWeb plans to resume launches in December of its constellation, which were placed on hold after a pair of Soyuz launches in February and March. The company is deploying an initial constellation of 650 satellites to provide broadband internet access globally.

OneWeb’s biggest competitor, SpaceX, has continued to roll out its Starlink constellation, with more than 800 satellites now in orbit. That includes 180 satellites launched in October alone on three Falcon 9 launches.

With its constellation growing, SpaceX is beginning a public beta test for the system. SpaceX started informing people who expressed interest to be the first to test the system Oct. 26 that they could now sign up for the service and order hardware, including the system’s distinctive “UFO-on-a-stick” antenna.

Participants in the beta test, which is initially limited to northern regions of the U.S., will have to pay $499 for the antenna and other hardware. The service itself will cost $99 per month.

Those who participate in what SpaceX calls the “Better Than Nothing Beta” were told by the company to expect data rates of 50–150 megabits per second, and latencies of 20–40 milliseconds. “There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all,” the SpaceX email cautions.

The scope of the beta test is expected to expand, and the quality of the service improve, as SpaceX adds more satellites to the constellation. The SpaceX email said bandwidth, latency and uptime will “improve dramatically” by the summer of 2021.

The system has already been in a “friends and family” private beta test in the Pacific Northwest that has also included the emergency management department of the state of Washington and the Hoh tribe in the state. Ector County Independent School District in West Texas recently announced it will use Starlink to provide free broadband to 45 families in a rural part of the county. That service, the district said in an Oct. 20 statement, will begin “early in 2021.”

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SpaceX, Hughes and Viasat qualify to bid for $20.4 billion in FCC rural broadband subsidies

Falcon 9 Starlink 10 launch
WASHINGTON — SpaceX, Hughes Network Systems and Viasat are eligible to compete for a share of the $20.4 billion in broadband subsidies the FCC plans to dole out under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) starting later this month.
The Federal Communications Commission on Oct. 13 released a list  of “qualified bidders” for the RDOF funds, which will be awarded via reverse auction to telecom providers bidding to bring subsidized voice and broadband internet services to rural communities and other underserved parts of the United States.
More than 400 telecom providers, including SpaceX, Hughes and Viasat, made the FCC’s list of qualified bidders.
Inclusion on the list makes them eligible to participate in an RDOF reverse auction set to begin Oct. 29.  That’s when the FCC will begin accepting bids from telecom providers for delivering services to some 6 million homes and businesses in census blocks entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbs. A second round of awards, the dates for which haven’t been set, will expand the program to cover partially served locations as well as locations passed over during the first round.
While there was little doubt among that Hughes and ViaSat would make the list of qualified bidders, SpaceX’s inclusion wasn’t a given because the Starlink constellation does not yet offer commercial service.
In the lead up to the competition, satellite operators complained that the RDOF rules put too much emphasis on low signal latency, which they say will make it too tough to win a share of the funds.
Hughes and Viasat have long provided consumer internet services via geostationary satellites, building and launching new satellites providing fast enough downloads to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband. However, geostationary satellites —  because they orbit some 36,000 kilometers above the equator — suffer a roughly 1/2-signal lag that disqualifies them from competing as low-latency services, defined by the FCC as 100 milliseconds or less lag.
To achieve lower latency and qualify for additional FCC broadband subsidies, Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg has discussed the idea of launching a constellation of 288 satellites in low Earth orbit. Pradman Kaul, Hughes Network Systems president, said the firm’s $50 million investment in OneWeb means the company could offer LEO broadband in the FCC reverse auction.
SpaceX is going for faster speeds and lower latency than GEO broadband by deploying thousands of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit, boosting network capacity and reducing signal travel times. The company has launched more than 700 Starlink satellites since 2018 but has yet to introduce commercial service. While SpaceX has told the FCC that the low orbits chosen for Starlink ensure it can outperform the 100 millisecond, the FCC said this summer it remained unconvinced.

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Hughes views OneWeb stake as key to FCC broadband subsidies

WASHINGTON — Hughes Network Systems believes it has a chance at winning some of the $20.4 billion in rural broadband subsidies the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is preparing to spend, thanks to the company’s recent investment in megaconstellation startup OneWeb. 

The FCC will evaluate satellite internet alongside fiber and other broadband delivery methods in October for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies meant to finance infrastructure to connect millions of homes and small businesses across the country. The program favors lag-free, high capacity services, a preference that has led satellite operators to offer low-Earth-orbit (LEO) connections in their efforts to win funding. 

Pradman Kaul, Hughes president, said the company’s $50 million investment into OneWeb, announced last month, has cleared a path for Hughes to offer LEO broadband for the FCC program. 

Hughes, like rival Viasat, remains convinced that geostationary satellites can beam internet less expensively and with higher throughputs than LEO constellations. But the FCC’s emphasis on latency drove the company to offer a LEO solution anyway.

“Although GEO has the economic advantage over LEOs in the rural low-density markets, the RDOF market program could potentially subsidize a LEO service offering due to the latency rules,” Kaul said during an Aug. 6 earnings call. “Based on our recent announcement, we have the opportunity now to augment our GEO offerings with OneWeb capacity and have more favorable positioning for RDOF funding.”

OneWeb, with 74 of a planned 650 satellites in orbit, cannot yet provide service, and is still being purchased out of bankruptcy by the British government and Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Global. The megaconstellation company’s new backers have pledged $1 billion to revive the company, in addition to Hughes’ $50 million stake. OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus Defence and Space tasked with building the OneWeb megaconstellation, has continued to build satellites through the bankruptcy of its co-owner and largest customer. 

Hughes and OneWeb will compete for RDOF funds against Viasat, which in May outlined a 288-satellite LEO constellation to the FCC as a means to participate in the subsidy program. 

Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which is planning a constellation of 300 LEO internet satellites, has urged the FCC to consider its future system for RDOF funds, as has SpaceX for Starlink, which has around 600 of an initial 4,400 satellites in orbit.

Kaul, during the earnings call, said he expects the majority of the FCC’s RDOF funding will go toward deploying fiber and, to a lesser extent, fixed wireless in rural areas with appreciable population densities. A “modest” amount of funding will likely go to the more sparsely populated geographies Hughes pursues for customers, he said. 

RDOF aside, Kaul said Hughes expects hybrid networks comprised of satellites in different orbits to become the industry norm as more operators diversify from GEO. 

“In this hybrid structure, LEOs can deliver ubiquitous coverage and low latency, while GEOs bring high capacity at the lowest possible cost wherever needed,” he said. 

Hughes’ next satellite, the 500-gigabit-per-second Jupiter-3, is projected to launch in the second half of 2021, though the company has yet to select a launch provider. 

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SpaceX, ULA to launch C-band satellites for SES

WASHINGTON — Commercial satellite operator SES has selected SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to each launch two geostationary satellites designed to replace C-band capacity in the United States that the Federal Communications Commission is repurposing for 5G cellular networks. 

SpaceX’s agreement includes room to launch one additional “contingency satellite” that has not yet been ordered. 

SES said Aug. 5 that ULA will launch two satellites built by Boeing on a single Atlas 5 in 2022. SpaceX will launch two satellites built by Northrop Grumman on a Falcon 9 rocket that same year. 

SES emphasized its decision to procure exclusively U.S.-built satellites and rockets, as the cost for both will be covered by winning bidders of the FCC’s December C-band spectrum auction. In both launch announcements, SES said it is “investing in America” as it works to repack customers using 500 megahertz of C-band spectrum today into 200 megahertz by early December 2023. 

SES, along with Intelsat and Eutelsat, are under pressure — but not required — to rely on U.S. companies for replacement C-band satellites and associated infrastructure and services. 

The companies told the FCC two years ago that they would exclusively order U.S.-built satellites if the FCC allowed them (with Telesat) to privately auction C-band spectrum, a move expected to generate upwards of $60 billion in proceeds. 

The FCC, facing congressional opposition to a private auction, ultimately chose a public auction where proceeds will be directed to the U.S. treasury. But the FCC adopted auction rules requiring winning bidders to pay for moving costs so satellite operators can continue to serve their C-band customers, mainly television broadcasters, with less spectrum. 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who chairs a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FCC, wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in May urging the commission to require satellite operators buy their reimbursable replacement C-band infrastructure from U.S. companies. 

“If the American taxpayer is ultimately going to foot the bill of foreign satellite companies, then we need to ensure as much of that money stays here at home as possible,” Kennedy wrote. 

Pai, during a June 16 Senate hearing, told Kennedy that the FCC had no authority to mandate U.S. purchases absent a national security justification. 

SES has nonetheless sought to steer clear of additional congressional heat by sourcing auction-related satellites and launch services solely from U.S. companies. 

SES described ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket as “an American launch vehicle launched from the American soil,” language similar to the way NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine describes the agency’s commercial crew program

SES said its “long-standing relationship with SpaceX signifies its latest commitment to the U.S.”

The Luxembourg-based operator plans to order two more C-band satellites, according to the company’s spectrum transition plan filed to the FCC in June. The company estimates spending $1.67 billion on C-band infrastructure — $1.25 billion on replacement satellites and launches, and $420 million on ground infrastructure and other costs. 

SES is striving to meet a December 2023 target to vacate the spectrum in order to receive $3.97 billion in incentive payments for clearing C-band on an accelerated timeline. The FCC is mandating satellite operators exit the lower 300 megahertz of C-band by December 2025, but has set up a program to incentivize exits two years sooner. Those incentive payments, like the reimbursements for replacement satellites, would come from the auction’s winners. 

SpaceX and ULA released statements on the SES launch awards. 

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a news release. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno said the company will “deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements.” 

“We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch,” he said. 

SpaceNews

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LEO constellations still held to high bar in FCC rural broadband subsidy program

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission remains unconvinced that low Earth orbit satellite internet constellations are worth subsidizing through its $16 billion rural broadband program despite tweaking the rules for that program to give LEO constellations a better chance to qualify for funding. 

In a move meant to benefit the likes of SpaceX, Telesat, Viasat and others, the FCC said June 9 it will allow LEO broadband constellations to compete for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund subsidies as a low-latency service. Before adopting the rule change, all satellites were categorized as high latency regardless of orbit, a classification that hurt satellite operators’ chances of receiving subsidies under a program that favors low latency and high data rates.

However, LEO broadband providers must still convince the FCC that their networks can deliver the kind of lag-free experience that internet customers expect for video conferencing and other interactive services. Satellite operators will compete with cable operators and other terrestrial providers for subsidies as the FCC seeks to encourage the deployment of low-cost, future-proofed broadband systems in underserved parts of the United States.

The FCC amended the rules after one of its commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, convinced FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to give LEO constellations the opportunity to show the FCC they can compete with terrestrial broadband networks. 

“I am grateful to the chairman for agreeing to expand eligibility for the low-latency performance tier and change language that was prejudicial to certain providers,” O’Rielly said June 9 during an open meeting the FCC held as a video teleconference due to ongoing restrictions on in-person gatherings. 

“[N]ext-generation satellite broadband holds tremendous technological promise for addressing the digital divide and is led by strong American companies with a lengthy record of success,” another FCC commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, said in support of the change. “Commission staff should evaluate those applications on their own merits.”

Pai, however, warned that allowing LEO broadband operators to compete in a category previously off limits to satellites doesn’t guarantee success. LEO applicants competing as low-latency systems “will be given very close scrutiny,” he said. 

“The purpose of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is to ensure that Americans have access to broadband, no matter where they live,” Pai said during the open meeting. “It is not a technology incubator to fund untested technologies, and we will not allow taxpayer funding to be wasted.”

An uphill fight for satellite operators

The FCC approved the change June 9, but did not release the full text of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s rules until June 11. In the 121-page public notice, the FCC said that while it will allow LEO satellite operators to compete for subsidies as low-latency providers, their systems — all of which are either still in development or the early stages of deployment — will be carefully scrutinized. 

Any broadband providers wishing to qualify to participate in a reverse auction scheduled for Oct. 29 must submit “short-form applications” to the FCC by July 15 detailing how they will meet the agency’s criteria. 

The FCC, in releasing the new rules, said it has “serious doubts that any low earth orbit networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements for bidding in the low latency tier.”

LEO constellations that bid as low-latency networks, rather than challenge GEO providers in the only category of the competition open to high-latency services, will “face a substantial challenge demonstrating to Commission staff that their networks can deliver real-world performance to consumers below the Commission’s 100 [millisecond] low-latency threshold,” the FCC said in its public notice. 

The agency specifically dismissed SpaceX’s assertion that the 550-kilometer orbit chosen for its Startlink constellation ensures the network will outperform the agency’s latency threshold. Closer orbits do result in less lag time, since signals have shorter distances to travel, but network processing times add to the total amount of latency. 

SpaceX told the FCC in a February presentation that Starlink will deliver less than 50 milliseconds of latency, but did not cite a demonstrated transmission speed. The Hawthorne, California-based company has launched the first 482 of thousands of planned Starlink satellites, making it the front-runner in deploying a LEO broadband network, with limited service expected to start in the United States and Canada late this year. 

OneWeb, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March after launching 74 of a planned 650 satellites, did not submit comments to the FCC about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The company’s launch program has stalled while it attempts to sell its spectrum rights. 

Canada-based geostationary satellite operator Telesat said in a June news release that the prototype LEO broadband satellite it launched more than two years ago demonstrated latencies of 30-60 milliseconds during testing. Telesat told the FCC in March that Telesat LEO will be “indistinguishable” from terrestrial internet as far as signal lag is concerned. However, Telesat  has not selected a manufacturer to build its constellation, and doesn’t expect to start limited service any sooner than 2022. 

Viasat, which relies on geostationary satellites to deliver residential internet service that can’t deliver the same high speeds as fiber optic and cable services, told the FCC last month it is willing to build a LEO broadband constellation if it can win a meaningful chunk of the FCC’s subsidies. The Carlsbad, California company was the only satellite operator to win funding in the FCC’s previous rural broadband program, the Connect America Fund 2, in 2018. 

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will award a total of $20.4 billion in two phases. The first phase, which runs through 2030, will dole out up to $16 billion to existing and prospective providers who convince the FCC they can build affordable high-speed, low-latency broadband networks to connect underserved rural regions of the United States. The second phase, the dates and rules for which haven’t been set, will allocate the remaining $4.4 billion. 

The FCC’s O’Rielly, speaking  during the agency’s open meeting, said the second phase presents another chance to revisit the FCC’s criteria. 

“Communications technology evolves at an extremely rapid pace, and who knows which technologies will have advanced or emerged by the time we get to Phase 2?” he said.

SpaceNews.com