A new kind of Space Race is emerging as companies are not only fighting for NASA contracts to return astronauts to the Moon, they are also competing for orbital planes to deploy their broadband satellite constellations. The most known space competitors are: Blue Origin & Amazon founder Jeff Bezos VS. SpaceX founder & Tesla CEO Elon Musk. This year, NASA awarded SpaceX a Human Landing System (HLS) contract to develop a Starship lunar lander to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Blue Origin lost the bid, causing Bezos to file a lawsuit against NASA, claiming the HLS selection process was ‘unfair’.
Both, Musk and Bezos, have plans to deploy thousands of satellites to provide broadband internet globally. SpaceX is actively deploying the Starlink constellation and Bezos’ Amazon has plans to build the ‘Project Kuiper’ constellation. SpaceX currently operates around 1,740 internet-beaming Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit that are already providing internet to 100,000 customers across 14 countries. Amazon Project Kuiper has not launched any satellites yet. The Kuiper constellation will be comprised of 3,236 satellites operating in low Earth orbit.
SpaceX is already working on the Starlink constellation's next phase. They are manufacturing its next-generation Starlink satellites, referred to as ‘Gen2 System’. Last week, on August 18, the company submitted an amended filing [SpaceX Amendment] with the FCC which includes a pair of proposals. SpaceX asked the Commission to approve at least one of two proposals that detailed orbital configurations for the Gen2 System.
On Wednesday, August 25, Amazon told the FCC in an ‘ex parte’ filing to "dismiss" SpaceX’s Gen2 System plans, stating that the proposals do not provide enough details and that it ‘breaks FCC rules’ to submit two proposals. “Should the Commission depart from its rules and precedent and endorse the approach of applying for multiple, mutually exclusive configurations, the consequences will extend far beyond the SpaceX Amendment [proposals],” an Amazon Project Kuiper representative told the FCC. “However inefficient this strategy might be for the Commission and parties responding to applications, other prospective licensees will surely see the benefit in maximizing their optionality by describing multiple configurations in their license applications," Project Kuiper wrote. "Accordingly, the Commission should enforce its rules, dismiss SpaceX’s Amendment, and invite SpaceX to resubmit its amendment after settling on a single configuration for its Gen2 System."
As previously reported by Tesmanian.com, SpaceX’s amended filing features two new proposals to the FCC detailing how the company plans to deploy its next-generation Gen2 System. One of the proposals, Configuration 1, states they could double the amount of satellites launched by Starship, as soon as the launch system is ready. The Configuration 2 proposal is an 'alternate arrangement' that would be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 if the Gen2 satellites are ready before the Starship launch system is operational.
“Configuration 1 would amend the orbital parameters in SpaceX's pending application [Table 1 shown below] in three main respects. First, SpaceX would target multiple inclinations to more evenly spread capacity by latitude, ensuring better, more consistent global coverage," SpaceX wrote to the FCC, "Second, it would nearly double the number of satellites deployed in a sun synchronous orbit optimized for service to polar regions, resulting in additional capacity for those chronically underserved areas like Alaska. Third, the revised orbital planes would enable single plane launch campaigns that capitalize on the ability of Starship to deliver satellites at a faster pace by not necessarily requiring a waiting period for orbital precession in a parking orbit. SpaceX could deploy satellites into their operational orbits within a matter of weeks after launch, rather than months. In this configuration, SpaceX would deploy 29,988 satellites,” the company representative wrote to the FCC, stating that the company prefers the Configuration 1 Starlink Gen2 System deployment plan. Configuration 1 would launch the satellites across 9 altitudes, ranging from 340 kilometers to 614 kilometers, as shown in Table 2. Configuration 2 would continue to be launched by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket fleet into similar altitudes in different orbital parameters, shown in Table 3 below. “Configuration 2 would target multiple inclinations to more evenly spread capacity by latitude, ensuring better, more consistent global coverage,” the filing said.
Gen2 System Satellite Orbital Parameters
Table 1: SpaceX Original Application
Table 2: New Proposal Configuration 1
Table 3: Configuration 2
Source: SpaceX FCC filing