In December 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Elon Musk’s SpaceX permission to launch 7,500 Gen2 satellites to provide Starlink internet service coverage. The FCC confidently asserted in the order, “Our action will allow SpaceX to begin deployment of Gen 2 Starlink,”.
SpaceX can now build and deploy satellites at specified Low Earth Orbit (LEO) altitudes between 525 and 535 kilometers. The FCC deems the 7,500 satellites adequate for providing global broadband internet coverage that can touch the most remote locations worldwide.
SpaceX believes Gen 2 satellites are the game-changer
SpaceX is extremely keen to launch the Gen 2 satellites. This is because they are much larger and have massively extended capabilities. CEO Elon Musk has said they carry bigger antennas that are useful for mobile telecommunications and satellite internet.
The space company wants to use the satellites to end mobile dead zones and has brokered a deal with T Mobile to deliver universal mobile coverage. Musk and T Mobile CEO Mike Sievert intend to use the Gen 2 launch to deliver universal US coverage that will reach the most remote corners of the US.
Elon Musk also needs those satellites up in the sky as soon as possible to satisfy the rising demand for Starlink’s satellite internet services. Starlink now has over one million subscribers, but speeds have dropped, and there are concerns its network is coming under strain. Prompt deployment of the Gen 2 satellites could help to alleviate network pressure points.
The FCC’s decision is only a partial victory for SpaceX
Though SpaceX gets to launch its Gen 2 Starlink satellites, the ruling delivers swinging cuts to the satellites being launched. In 2020, Musk’s SpaceX asked to launch over 29,000 of their satellite, leading to protracted legal wranglings and appeals.
But in reality, these additional 7,500 satellites come hard on the heels of the 12,000 satellites approved in 2020. The f29,000 satellites are not dead in the water, though, as the FCC deferred its decision on approving the deployment of the full number.
Additional conditions placed on SpaceX
Those 7,500 satellites come with extra conditions. The FCC has insisted that Starlink coordinates its efforts with NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other satellite internet operators. These organizations have fiercely contested Space X plans, citing the potential for orbital debris and collisions, with reported near-miss events. The FCC wanted to curb the interference with satellite telecommunications and radioastronomy that would come with a 30K satellite launch.
SpaceX application for almost $1 billion in federal funding to provide subsidized internet access to low-income and remote households also left the FCC unimpressed. Starlink has already secured over $885 million in federal funds. Still, the August 2022 ruling cited the $600 cost of the satellite dish and uncertainties about the quality and consistency of service as reasons for rejecting the application.
A closer look at the Starlink Gen 2 satellite
Starlink’s second-generation satellites are many times bigger than the originally launched satellites. They weigh over 1.25 tons (2750 pounds), double the weight of the V1 satellites, with dimensions of 21 by 9 feet (6.5 by 2.7 meters). The new satellites carry massive solar arrays with hundreds of square meters of photovoltaic cells. The Gen 2 satellites have been designed to have power efficiency that matches the Gen 1 satellites while delivering up to four times the bandwidth that is currently available.
Launching such large satellites is going to be a challenge
Space X has not launched such large satellites before. Each Falcon 9 spacecraft only can carry 21 Gen 2 satellites to their low orbit destination. The satellites are transported flat-packed and self-assembled in orbit.
A next-generation rocket with a larger capacity is in development but is not yet available for launch. Starlink may have to opt for a downsized, ‘mini’ version of the Gen 2 satellite to speed up its permitted satellite quota.
Serious concerns about the Starlink constellation remain
Starlink relies on its constellation of satellites to deliver the bandwidth and low latency users typically expect from broadband internet connectivity. The firm needs to maximize the number of its orbiting satellites to deliver a decent service to increase subscribers. However, the burgeoning size of Starlink’s constellation is causing more than a few problems in space.
Several international space organizations and stakeholders have reported the negative impacts of the Starlink satellite on space conditions. Starlink owns more than half of the satellites orbiting Earth right now. NASA, The European Space Agency, The International Astronomical Union (IAU), and the China Space Agency have some concerns about this. Key among them include:
Collision risks: The European and Chinese Space Agencies have logged incidents with the UN. They say their space stations have used evasive maneuvers to avoid collisions with Starlink satellites.
Light pollution: The lights on thousands of Starlink satellites add to much light pollution. These obscure stars and heavenly bodies in the night sky. The problem is so pernicious and extensive that 8% of Hubble Space Telescope images contain satellite streaks. In addition, light interference with planetary defense surveys and the study of celestial objects by ground-based telescopes worldwide.
Environmental pollution: Starlink satellites are designed to decommission themselves at the end of their lifespan and incinerate as they fall to Earth. But if thousands of satellites drop out of orbit and burn up simultaneously, the debris and chemicals generated could alter ionospheric conditions, threatening life on earth.
Effects on scientific missions: As Starlink sends more satellites in Low Earth Orbit, the risks to future space missions increase. The large volumes of orbiting satellites make it extremely difficult to plan launch windows for rockets. They might be satellites within a rocket’s planned flight path, making launches risky.
With its 2022 ruling, SpaceX has made some headway with expanding the Starlink constellation. Starlink needs increasing numbers of satellites to grow its business and provide fast download speeds to subscribers.
However, sending thousands of satellites into space has its risks. The negative effects are being felt keenly in fields like astronomy. The biggest concern is that a private company can send such many satellites into space unilaterally. They are unsure of what their space and environmental impacts will be long-term.
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