Viasat, a broadband satellite operator, has attempted to stop SpaceX from launching more Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit. The aerospace company currently operates around 1,740 satellites out of 12,000 that will be deployed over the course of the next five years. The constellation is designed to provide reliable broadband coverage to rural and remote regions around the globe.
Around a year ago, SpaceX submitted a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), seeking to modify the altitude of 2,814 satellites into lower operational orbits than previously planned. Operating Starlink satellites in lower orbits enables the constellation to provide faster broadband service around the globe. This request faced a lot of objections from competitors that operate satellites at higher altitudes, including Viasat, Amazon, and OneWeb. They claim the Starlink constellation could ‘interfere with other satellite networks.’ SpaceX competitors told the FCC 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.”
The FCC approved SpaceX’s request to deploy more satellites at lower altitudes in April. The Commission allowed SpaceX to decrease the operational altitude of 2,814 satellites it plans to launch from initially planned orbits of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to 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. Under the 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 stated.
Viasat then proceeded to file a lawsuit; It sued the FCC in May, alleging that the FCC did not properly perform an environmental review on SpaceX’s planned satellite constellation. Viasat requested to pause SpaceX’s monthly Starlink launches until the pending lawsuit is resolved. "Viasat’s request for a stay—filed more than five weeks after the Commission’s decision—seeks to halt SpaceX’s years-long effort to expand broadband internet service to unserved and underserved populations through its
Starlink constellation of satellites. This Court should reject Viasat’s transparent bid
to co-opt the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the procedure for
extraordinary stay relief as weapons of commercial warfare," SpaceX representatives wrote to the U.S. Court of Appeals on June 14, "SpaceX’s license modification enhances Starlink service while reducing any impacts from its satellites by lowering (from 1,100+ km to 540+ km) a subset of 2,824 within the originally authorized constellation of ~4,400 satellites," SpaceX wrote. Last week, on July 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected Viasat’s request. “Viasat has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review,” the panel of judges stated. However, the Court did state they would expedite the appeal to have final briefings by October 26.
Featured Image Source: SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.