SpaceX authorised to reduce number of satellites

The FCC has allowed SpaceX to reduce its number of satellites for home broadband by 16 units, and to operate them at a lower orbit than first authorised.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given authorisation to SpaceX to reduce the number of satellites in its home broadband constellation from 4,425 down to 4,409, as well as permitted it to operate at a lower orbital altitude than previously allowed.

While originally slated to operate at an altitude of 1,150km, 1,584 of Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites will now operate at 550km, with related changes to their operations also granted.

In addition, SpaceX has been authorised to use Ku-band gateway earth stations for less than 75 of the non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) lower-altitude satellites.

"After review of the record, we conclude that grant of the SpaceX Modification Application will serve the public interest," the FCC decided [PDF].

"Grant of this modification will allow SpaceX to make efficient use of valuable spectrum resources more safely, quickly, and cost-effectively as it initiates a new generation of broadband services available to customers worldwide, including those in areas previously underserved or even totally unserved by other broadband solutions."

After SpaceX made the request in November 2018, competing providers OneWeb and Kepler filed petitions against it, citing a greater opportunity for interference. However, the FCC pointed out that there will be a decrease in the number of SpaceX satellites.

"We thus conclude that the number of spatial configurations that have the potential for generating interference between SpaceX and any other NGSO FSS system in the same processing round is expected to remain approximately unchanged," the commission said.

"We consider this to be a fundamental element in assessing whether there would be significant interference problems."

The gateways now using the 14-14.5GHz band will also use larger antennas with narrower beams, which the FCC pointed out will "be more capable of avoiding interference into satellites".

With SpaceX also describing how it would avoid potential collisions -- via a propulsion system so it can manoeuvre satellites to avoid collisions -- the FCC additionally found this risk to be zero or near zero.

The launch of the global home broadband satellites was originally announced in November 2016, with SpaceX saying each unit would weigh 386kg and measure 4x1.8x1.2m.

"The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users worldwide," SpaceX said at the time.

Read also: SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets into history and nails the landing (CNET)

The company has seen difficulties, however; back in February, the Pentagon said it was planning an investigation into the certification granted to SpaceX's Falcon launch vehicle family to examine whether the US Air Force followed the correct guidelines.

SpaceX had been awarded the certification required to launch military satellites in 2015.

"Our objective is to determine whether the US Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles," Deputy Inspector General for Intelligence and Special Program Assessments Michael Roark said.

In January, SpaceX additionally announced what it called a "necessary cutback" while removing 10% of its workforce to meet "extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead."

As reported by sister site CNET, SpaceX and NASA are currently also investigating the cause of an engine failure of the Crew Dragon capsule.

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