SpaceX gets approval to lower its LEO

Satellite company SpaceX has received permission to halve the altitude at which its low earth orbit satellites float.

SpaceX is run by US zillionaire Elon Musk, who is an early leader in the LEO market, having already lobbed over a thousand satellites, which deliver broadband to underserved areas, into orbit already. Those exist at a height of 550 kilometres above the earth’s surface, but the next lot were previously only approved to be at twice that height.

There are presumably advantages to having your whole constellation of satellites at more or less the same altitude and, thanks to a recent FCC ruling, SpaceX can now do that. The company itself doesn’t seem to have made any public comment on the matter, but Musk signalled his approval via a deferential tweet acknowledging the news.

The FCC’s decision flies in the face of lobbying from other LEO players, who presumably also saw it as a positive for their competitor. Last week OneWeb, which is partly owned by the UK government, accused SpaceX of nearly causing a collision with one of its own satellites, but that claim was apparently dismissed.

There seems to be a bit of a gold-rush going on in the LEO communications satellite game. It’s very capital intensive, which is why only the richest need apply and, presumably, why OneWeb keeps having to tap investors for more cash. There will soon be thousands of them jostling for space at quite similar altitudes, so concern about collisions does seem legitimate.

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One comment

  1. Avatar Andrew Somerville 28/04/2021 @ 9:22 pm

    At 550km the surface area of the orbit is 600 million square kilometres.
    And whilst 550km is the nominal orbital height, the Starlink constellation consists of multiple shells at 540km, 5550km, 560km, 570km
    So Musk’s 4000 satellites are hardly going to jostle Oneweb’s 650 – which in any case operate at 1200km not 550km.
    The problem is not with operational satellites – it’s the risk of future debris from units going end of life.

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