SpaceX is launching 12,000 Starlink satellites to provide broadband internet service globally, primarily in rural and remote regions. To date, the company has launched around 1,737 satellites into an altitude of approximately 550-kilometers (km). A year ago, SpaceX submitted a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), seeking to modify the altitude of future satellite deployments into lower operational orbits than previously planned. Operating Starlink satellites in lower orbits enables the constellation to provide faster broadband service with lower latency.
This request faced a lot of objections from competitors, including ViaSat, OneWeb, and Amazon, that said the Starlink constellation could interfere with other satellite networks. SpaceX competitors claimed that decreasing the orbits of thousands of satellites would also ‘increase the risk of collisions’ with other orbiting spacecraft or debris, to which the FCC said on April 27: “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.” Then the FCC approved SpaceX’s request to deploy more satellites at lower operational altitudes.
SpaceX will deploy more Starlink satellites into lower orbits to prevent ‘space junk.’ Today, June 23, SpaceX founder Elon Musk replied to an infographic about orbital decay shared on Twitter by United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno, pictured below. The chart describes how nonfunctional satellites take 'thousands of years" to decay when operating at higher altitudes compared to a few months in lower altitudes. –“Good chart. This is a major reason why we moved Starlink from ~1100km orbit to ~550km. Atmosphere automatically clears the lower altitude within a few years, so space junk cannot accumulate,” Musk said. At altitudes of around 550 kilometers in low Earth orbit, failed satellites will not transform into space junk because within 3 to 5 years atmospheric drag will pull them back toward Earth’s atmosphere where they will inevitably burn up on reentry.
Good chart. This is a major reason why we moved Starlink from ~1100km orbit to ~550km. Atmosphere automatically clears the lower altitude within a few years, so space junk cannot accumulate.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 23, 2021
The FCC authorized SpaceX to decrease the operational altitude of 2,814 satellites that SpaceX plans to launch. Initially, these satellites were planned to orbit within 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers, now they will be deployed into lower orbits of 540 to 570 kilometers. “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 stated in April. Under the newly approved plan, SpaceX will launch a total of 4,408 satellites to operate in lower altitudes –the amount includes the satellites that are in space already. “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 FCC states.
Featured Image Source: SpaceX