U.S. Court of Appeals upholds FCC-approved SpaceX plan to operate Starlink in lower orbits in battle with Dish Network & ViaSat

U.S. Court of Appeals upholds FCC-approved SpaceX plan to operate Starlink in lower orbits in battle with Dish Network & ViaSat

SpaceX won the legal battle against Dish Network and ViaSat over operating the Starlink satellite constellation at a lower altitude in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In 2020, SpaceX submitted an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modify the operational altitudes of 2,824 Starlink satellites from altitudes between 1,100 km to 1,300 km to 540 to 570 km (kilometers) in LEO. The plan to decrease the altitude of the satellites faced strong opposition from competitors, including Dish Network, ViaSat, Amazon, and OneWeb. 

In April 2021, the FCC approved SpaceX’s plan to launch the satellites’ altitudes and the company has since launched nearly two-thirds of the 4,408 satellites that are part of SpaceX’s Phase 1 of the Starlink broadband constellation which will be deployed into different orbital parameters, detailed in the table below. Dish Network and Viasat then engaged in a legal battle against the FCC’s decision to approve SpaceX’s altitude modification.

On Friday, August 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s decision to approve SpaceX’s Starlink deployment plans. “We believe that the Court’s decision is a setback for both space safety and environmental protection,” Viasat representatives said in a press statement after losing the appeal. “Had the Court forced the FCC to properly grapple with the complicated issues surrounding deployment of mega-constellations in LEO, we believe harmful impacts that otherwise may persist for decades or even centuries to come could have been avoided.” 

ViaSat and Dish Network believe that the Starlink constellation of thousands of satellites would increase risk of collision with other spacecraft in orbit. However, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are equipped with advanced technology capable of autonomously moving to avoid potential collisions. The FCC concluded in 2021 that Starlink “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[...].” Friday's court ruling found "Viasat operates only a single satellite that flies close to SpaceX’s constellation" and added "This theory of injury is much too speculative."

Featured Image Source: SpaceX

About the Author

Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

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.

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