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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 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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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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OneWeb’s revival worries astronomers

WASHINGTON — A potential return to operations of satellite megaconstellation company OneWeb is a new source of worry for astronomers who previously had been focused on the effect SpaceX’s Starlink satellites will have on their observations.

OneWeb, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, announced July 3 that the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global will provide $1 billion in new funding to recapitalize the company. That offer is pending approval by a U.S. bankruptcy court at a July 10 hearing.

OneWeb said that the new funding would allow the company to “effectuate the full end-to-end deployment of the OneWeb system,” but didn’t elaborate on those plans. The company suspended launches after the Chapter 11 filing after placing 74 satellites of an initial 650-satellite constellation into orbit. However, in May the company filed a proposal with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission seeking to increase its constellation by 48,000 satellites.

The prospect of a recapitalized OneWeb resuming launches of hundreds, or potentially tens of thousands, of satellites is a new concern for astronomers. Those satellites, astronomers said during sessions July 3 of the European Astronomical Society’s annual conference, held online, are a particular concern because of their higher altitudes.

“The big problem is low Earth orbiting satellites much higher than 600 kilometers,” said Tony Tyson, chief scientist for the Vera Rubin Observatory, a wide-field telescope under construction in Chile. The higher a satellite’s altitude, the longer it is visible after sunset and before sunrise. “They’re illuminated all night long in the summertime.”

OneWeb’s satellites operate at an altitude of 1,200 kilometers. While too dim to be seen with the naked eye — they are at approximately eighth magnitude — they are still bright enough to pose a problem for professional astronomers.

“It is clear that a huge constellation of 50,000 satellites at high altitude is the most threatening to visible astronomy,” said Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory who has modeled the effect of satellite constellations on groundbased astronomy.

At the time of OneWeb’s Chapter 11 filing, the company had only just started to discuss with astronomers the impact of their satellites on observations. A working group of the American Astronomical Society had one teleconference with OneWeb about the topic before the bankruptcy.

Some astronomers said at the conference they will look to the British government, as one of the new owners of OneWeb, to intervene on the subject. “We have not heard anything from the U.K. government,” Hainaut said during a conference session just a few hours after OneWeb announced the deal.

Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, said in a press briefing after the conference sessions that OneWeb did participate in a meeting his society held in January on the issue. “We thought they’d disappeared” after their bankruptcy filing. “Then, weirdly, they filed this license application for 48,000 satellites, which took people by surprise.”

“I would hope that the U.K. government uses its leverage that it now has to help ensure that they are good a partner in this and they engage with the astronomy and space science community,” he said.

Waiting on VisorSat

Astronomers at the meeting contrasted OneWeb with SpaceX, whose initial launches of Starlink satellites more than a year first raised the alarm among astronomers about the effect such satellites would have on their observations.

Since the initial Starlink launch in May 2019, astronomers have met regularly with SpaceX, and the company has made efforts to reduce the brightness of its satellites. In January, it launched an experimental satellite dubbed “DarkSat” with darkened surfaces intended to make the satellite less reflective. In June, it started launching “VisorSats,” Starlink satellites equipped with sunshades to block sunlight from hitting reflective surfaces.

The first VisorSat has yet to reach its operational orbit, and thus astronomers can’t yet determine how effective it is. “There are many people who are going to measure it as soon as it is in position,” said Hainaut at the press briefing. “It is a matter of weeks.”

Astronomers hope that VisorSat will be significantly dimmer than unmodified Starlink satellites, with a goal of reaching seventh magnitude. “We are pretty sure that seventh magnitude for the satellite would get us out of woods” in terms of the worst effects the satellites would have on Rubin Observatory observations, Tyson said.

Starlink satellites will still leave a trail on images that will interfere with observations, but Tyson praised SpaceX for making efforts to mitigate the worst effects of the constellation. “It seems like the SpaceX brightness mitigation efforts are on track and actually set an example for the industry to follow,” he said.

Patricia Cooper, SpaceX vice president of satellite government relations, said at the conference that the company has taken other measures to mitigate the effect of Starlink on astronomy, including lowering the altitude of some of its satellites from 1,100 to 550 kilometers, a move that also benefits safety of space operations. “I don’t expect us to fly any of our future satellites at higher altitudes,” she said.

Cooper credited “robust and frank talk” between the company and astronomers, many of whom were sharply critical of Starlink when launches started last year, for driving those improvements. “We’ve done our contribution in raising awareness that constellations can be a problem for astronomy,” she said. “We’re a venture that attracts a lot of attention, for better or worse.”

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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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