FCC greenlights SpaceX to launch 7,000 satellites for broadband services

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in October 2018.                  Getty Images

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given SpaceX authorisation to construct, deploy, and operate in excess of 7,000 satellites into very-low-Earth orbit, expected to boost internet connectivity across the globe.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has noted the market for telecommunications services is dramatically bigger than the market for launch services, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said satellite service revenue would help fund his vision of building a city on Mars.

Besides SpaceX, the FCC also approved three other companies with much smaller projects: 140 satellites for Kepler, 117 for Telesat and 78 for LeoSat, meaning that the agency voted to permit the placing of 7,859 more human-made objects into orbit.

"Our approach to these applications reflects this commission's fundamental approach to encourage the private sector to invest and to innovate and allow market forces to deliver value to American consumers".

The test units were created to gather information about the viability and technology needed to launch a global network of Internet-serving satellites that could blanket the entire globe.

On the same day the FCC approved an item contemplating what to do with an enormous amount of space debris, it approved the requests of four companies that want to roll out new and expanded nongeostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) satellites. More satellites would offer complete coverage, as well as add broadband capacity worldwide.

The FCC had approved a SpaceX plan last March for a satellite system comprised of 4,425 satellites and granted it the authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands for providing global internet connectivity. SpaceX will now be under pressure to start launching its equipment, with expectations that the first batch will be launching next year.

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SpaceX's interest in such a low orbit is to shorten the communication time between internet users on Earth and space-faring satellites, speeding up surfing speeds.

As of April 2018, there were 1,886 operating satellites orbiting Earth.

"Orbital debris objects greater than one centimeter in diameter can cause catastrophic damage to functional spacecraft", the FCC proposal said. The FCC is anxious, however, what the dramatic expansion of man-made objects in low orbit will mean for the growing problem of space junk.

The SpaceX launch and other planned satellite constellations could increase the risk of satellite collisions and space debris, as we reported past year.

As a result of the space junk issue, the FCC asked SpaceX to submit debris mitigation plans.

The FCC said it is "propos [ing] changes to improve disclosure of debris mitigation plans" and seeking public comment on "satellite disposal reliability and methodology, appropriate deployment altitudes in low-Earth-orbit, and on-orbit lifetime, with a particular focus on large NGSO satellite constellations".

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