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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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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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Falcon 9 launch adds 60 Starlink satellites to orbit as constellation beta testing continues

WASHINGTON — SpaceX on Sept. 3 launched 60 Starlink internet satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket while disclosing early testing results from the constellation for which it has now launched 713 satellites. 

Falcon 9 lifted off at 8:46 a.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and deployed the latest batch of Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit 15 minutes later. 

The rocket’s reusable first-stage booster landed on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You,” located in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the booster’s second flight, following a June GPS-3 launch for the U.S. Space Force. 

SpaceX plans to roll out a public beta of Starlink internet service later this year, but is for now testing the service with employees, Kate Tice, senior certification engineer at SpaceX, said during the launch webcast. 

That testing demonstrated download speeds above 100 megabits per second, and “super low latency,” she said, though she did not quantify the latency. 

“Our latency is low enough to play the fastest online video games, and our download speeds are fast enough to stream multiple HD movies at once and still have bandwidth to spare,” Tice said. 

The Starlink megaconstellation, which could number 12,000 or even 42,000 satellites, remains “very much a work in progress,” she said. “Over time, we will continue to add features to unlock the full capability of that network.”

One new feature some Starlink satellites now have is inter-satellite links — a component SpaceX had said Starlink would have but for which it had not given an introduction date. 

SpaceX completed a test with two satellites equipped with the crosslinks, which the company refers to as “space lasers.”

“With these space lasers, the Starlink satellites were able to transfer hundreds of gigabytes of data,” Tice said. “Once these space lasers are fully deployed, Starlink will be one of the fastest options available to transfer data around the world.”

Inter-satellite links help lower latency, which could improve SpaceX’s odds of winning a share of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, meant to subsidize high-speed internet in the United States. SpaceX told the FCC in February that Starlink would have less than 50 milliseconds of signal lag.

SpaceX is already starting to deorbit older Starlink satellites that lack features added on later iterations. In the past 60 days, 10 Starlink satellites have deorbited — eight from bulk launches, plus the two TinTin prototypes — according to Celestrack, a service from Analytical Graphics Inc.

Another four Starlink satellites launched in 2019 have orbits below 200 kilometers, indicating they are imminently close to burning up in Earth’s atmosphere and deorbiting, T.S. Kelso, senior research astrodynamicist at AGI, told SpaceNews by email. 

SpaceX has completed 16 launches in 2020, all using Falcon 9 rockets. Of those launches, 10 were for its own Starlink constellation. 

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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.

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Astronomers warn about effects of other satellite megaconstellations

WASHINGTON — Astronomers who have spent the last year worried about the effect that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites will have on their observations say they are increasingly concerned about the impact from other proposed megaconstellations.

Astronomers became alarmed about the effect the Starlink satellites would have after the launch of the initial set of 60 spacecraft in May 2019. Since then, an American Astronomical Society (AAS) committee has been working with the company to discuss ways to mitigate the effect the satellites would have on astronomy.

SpaceX has responded to those concerns first with an experimental “DarkSat” launched in January, whose surfaces were darkened to reduce the amount of sunlight they reflected. SpaceX followed that up with a “VisorSat” on the most recent Starlink launch June 3, a satellite that has sunshades intended to block sunlight from reaching reflective surfaces on the satellite.

While the effectiveness of VisorSat will have to be measured in the weeks ahead once the spacecraft reaches its final orbit, astronomers say they’re pleased that SpaceX has been willing to work with them on the issue. “The bottom line is that significant resources at SpaceX are being devoted to these technical solutions,” said James Lowenthal of Smith College during a press conference at the 236th Meeting of the AAS June 3.

SpaceX, however, is not the only company with satellite megaconstellation plans. Lowenthal said that astronomers have had far fewer discussions with other satellite operators. “We had one telecon with OneWeb, but then they declared bankruptcy,” he said during a presentation at the conference June 2. “We’ve had no major conversations with other operators.”

That lack of discussions is magnified by new proposals by some companies, including OneWeb, to expand their constellations. Despite filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, OneWeb submitted plans with the Federal Communications Commission May 27 to increase its constellation by 48,000 satellites to give it “greater flexibility to meet soaring global connectivity demands,” according to a company statement about the proposal.

“The situation just got worse,” said Pat Seitzer of the University of Michigan, who has been studying the effect of Starlink and other satellite constellations on astronomy, at the AAS press conference. The filings by OneWeb and other companies would add as many as 50,000 satellites on top of plans for systems that proposed up to 60,000 satellites. “That’s a very serious problem.”

The OneWeb proposal would put its satellites into orbits about 1,200 kilometers high, far higher than the Starlink satellites at 550 kilometers. At that higher altitude, he said, the satellites would be visible for longer after sunset and before sunrise. In one scenario examining conditions at the Vera Rubin Observatory under construction in Chile, at least 500 satellites would be visible at any given time all night long in the summer.

At the higher altitude, the satellites will be too dim to be seen with the naked eye, assuming the new constellation uses a design similar to OneWeb’s existing satellites. However, Seitzer said that they would still be bright enough to saturate sensitive instruments at that observatory, interfering with observations.

Other observatories are worried about the new constellations as well. Lowenthal said at the briefing that the AAS surveyed 23 observatories around the world about the impacts of satellite megaconstellations, starting with the effects of an initial set of 1,584 Starlink satellites.

“The majority of the observatories responding expressed significant concerns, grave challenges to science and predicted significant financial costs,” he said. The affected research, he said, included wide-field surveys where it’s impossible to avoid satellites passing through the field of view as well as time-sensitive observations of transient phenomena.

Asked to assess the effects if there are 20,000 satellites in orbit from various megaconstellations, he said, a majority said that nearly all their observations would be affected. “About half said there would be a critical failure of that facility.”

AAS is holding an online workshop in late June to discuss the issue with astronomers and satellite companies. Besides SpaceX, Lowenthal said that Amazon, which is developing a satellite system called Project Kuiper, planned to participate.

“Will all these companies be good citizens? We don’t know,” he said of those proposing megaconstellations, warning that such systems threaten to “draw the blinds” on the night sky. “Astronomers are working hard with SpaceX and, we hope, other satellite operators to understand and to reduce the impacts to astronomy and the night sky.”

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SpaceX launches eighth Starlink mission, first VisorSat satellite

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched a batch of 60 Starlink broadband satellites June 3, including one with a deployable sunshield meant to test out a new way to reduce the brightness of future satellites. 

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 9:25 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and deployed the satellites into low Earth orbit 15 minutes later. 

The rocket’s first stage landed on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” about nine minutes after lift off. The launch marked the fifth use of that booster, which previously flew one mission to geostationary transfer orbit and three missions to low Earth orbit, the latest being in January, also for Starlink. The launch was also the first time SpaceX successfully recovered a first-stage booster after five flights. 

SpaceX has launched 482 Starlink satellites, counting Wednesday’s launch and two prototypes launched in 2018. The company had planned its latest Starlink mission for May, but was delayed by Tropical Storm Arthur until after the company’s Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station, which took place May 30

May was the first month this year SpaceX did not conduct a Starlink launch. The company had averaged one Starlink launch a month before the delay. SpaceX was originally targeting two Starlink launches a month throughout 2020.

SpaceX is building and launching a constellation of up to 12,000, and potentially 42,000 satellites in low Earth orbit to support a global satellite internet service. The company expects to start service late this year in Canada and parts of the United States. 

SpaceX plans to add deployable visors to all future Starlink satellites after launching around 500 with their current design, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government relations, said during a webinar last week. 

“We would have about 500 satellites at their current brightness, and then all satellites beyond that would have these sunshades,” Cooper said during a webinar hosted by the American Astronomical Society and the Satellite Industry Association. “That is the ratio we would be looking at.”

SpaceX is seeking to lessen the brightness of Starlink satellites to reduce their impact on astronomy.

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SpaceX to add sunshades to all future Starlink satellites

VisorSat

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has decided to add sunshades to future Starlink satellites to reduce their impact on astronomy, having opted for constellation-wide implementation of the reflective hardware. 

Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government relations, said May 26 that SpaceX has another 80 or so Starlink satellites it is preparing to launch based on their current design before regularly incorporating sunshades that block sunlight from hitting reflective parts of each satellite. 

“We would have about 500 satellites at their current brightness, and then all satellites beyond that would have these sunshades,” Cooper said during a webinar hosted by the American Astronomical Society and the Satellite Industry Association. “That is the ratio we would be looking at.”

SpaceX has launched 422 Starlink satellites, including two prototypes, since 2018. The company is building and launching an initial constellation of roughly 4,400 satellites, though regulatory filings indicate the company could grow Starlink to 12,000 or even 42,000 satellites. 

SpaceX’s first visor-equipped satellite, dubbed VisorSat, was expected to launch May 17, but was delayed because of Tropical Storm Arthur until after the company’s highly anticipated Crew Demo 2 mission, scheduled for May 27 at 4:33 p.m. Eastern. Cooper said SpaceX has yet to announce a date for its next Starlink mission. 

SpaceX typically launches Starlink satellites in batches of 60 on Falcon 9 rockets, a rate that would suggest one or two more launches would occur without Starlink satellites routinely equipped with sunshades. Cooper said SpaceX will likely retire early Starlink satellites more quickly to reduce their impact on astronomy. 

“The earlier version of our satellites that we’ve launched, we don’t expect them to have a complete five-year life span,” she said. “We are expecting to cut in the VisorSat mitigation at the point that we are launching still in the 500s of satellites.”

Tony Tyson, chief scientist for the Vera Rubin Observatory, said Starlink satellites need to be dimmed to an apparent magnitude of seven so that astronomers can work around them using image processing. Recent observations show Starlink satellites at around magnitude five. DarkSat, a Starlink satellite treated with an experimental darkening coating, was observed at roughly magnitude six, he said. 

“Progress is being made, [but] we still have to get to seventh magnitude somehow,” Tyson said. SpaceX is working with astronomers on reducing the impact of Starlink, he said.

Cooper, when asked if SpaceX had the same goal of lowering Starlink’s brightness to magnitude seven, said it is an “interesting threshold,” but did not commit to meeting that target. 

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