SpaceX cleared to place satellites in lower orbit for next-gen broadband service

By Vignesh Giridharan | Updated 14 May 2019
SpaceX cleared to place satellites in lower orbit for next-gen broadband service
  • FCC approves SpaceX's request to fly about one-fourth of its 4,425 satellites at a lower orbit
  • The satellites are part of Starlink, a project to create a low-cost, high-performance broadband service

Back in November last year, SpaceX was cleared by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to place over four thousand satellites in earth’s orbit for a next-generation satellite-enabled broadband service called Starlink. But after a test it conducted in February, the Elon Musk-led company decided it would work better if some of the satellites were placed in a lower orbit. So it wrote up another request to the FCC asking for permission to use a lower earth orbit, and—according to a recent report by The Verge—it’s been approved.

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Back in November, the FCC had okayed SpaceX’s request to send up 4,425 Starlink satellites and put them in an orbit between 1,110 and 1,325 kilometres from the earth’s surface. In February, SpaceX sent up two satellites, Tintin A and B, to test the waters. From that mission, it learnt that Starlink would work more efficiently if some of those 4,425 satellites were placed in a lower orbit. And so, it requested the FCC once again to approve its plan to place 1,584 of its satellites at a much lower orbit of 550 kilometres from earth’s surface.

“This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement to The Verge. According to SpaceX, placing about a fourth of those satellites at lower earth orbit reduces transmission time to 15 milliseconds while using 16 fewer satellites. What’s more, any dysfunctional satellite falling from low orbit will burn up more easily while re-entering earth and ensure it doesn’t add to space debris.

The idea behind the Starlink project is to develop a low-cost, high-performance broadband service by creating a constellation of low earth orbit satellites. SpaceX has been heading the venture since 2015 with plans to expand internet service all the way up to Mars in the distant future. The first test-flight satellites were sent up a little over a year ago using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. According to The Verge, Amazon’s Project Kuiper too has similar goals.

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Vignesh Giridharan
Progressively identifies with the term 'legacy device' as time marches on.
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