Analyst: “What to do with 30,000 satellites?”
January 10, 2023
In December 2022, the FCC granted a partial approval for a SpaceX application for a massive expansion to its mega-constellation. The FCC said that the Elon Musk Starlink broadband business could go ahead with launching 7,500 ‘Generation 2’ satellites, but has declined to approve an application for a further 30,000 satellites.
A report from Quilty Analytics snappily sums up the FCC’s extreme dilemma, saying: “The FCC’s decision to approve exactly 25 per cent of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation filing wasn’t a totally arbitrary decision. Or was it? It appears the FCC is buying more time (than the 2+ years it’s taken so far) to figure out what the heck to do with a 30,000-satellite constellation.”
Quilty doesn’t provide an immediate answer, but perhaps the clues are in the FCC’s formal response to SpaceX. One of the key observations from the FCC concerns Debris Mitigation and satellite manoeuvrability, satellite failures and orbit raising and deorbiting.
Each of these segments are creating headaches for the FCC and creating considerable ammunition for SpaceX’s rivals and detractors.
The facts are straightforward enough when dealing with single satellites and there’s plenty of tangible experience when – for example – there’s a problem with a geostationary craft that’s reached its end-of-life. But extrapolating these well-rehearsed experiences to the potential problems from a major Musk-style LEO constellation is a very serious headache for regulators.
One concern is the spacers or stiffening rods which hold the satellites together when launched and which are released upon deployment of the cargo. Currently SpaceX uses four of these aluminium rods for each launch. They are 1.5 inches in diameter and six metres in length. They can take up to 36 days to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. The prospect of launching an extra 35,000-40,000 satellites held together with these rods seemed to worry the FCC until SpaceX stated they would not use them for Generation 2 craft.
The FCC said: “Although it is unclear at this point how many launches will utilise these deployment mechanisms, given the short orbital lifetime and full demise of this operational debris, and in light of longer-term plans for deployment using a different method, we take no further action at this time concerning spacers and tension rods. As plans for deployment of the Gen2 Starlink system are refined, including through modifications and further actions to address additional frequency bands, we retain discretion to address this matter further if necessary.”
Viasat, for example, also complained to the FCC about potentially “lethal non-trackable [satellite] debris” and an estimated one million pieces of debris ranging in size from 1cm to 10cm.
The FCC said “Given the conditions concerning ongoing monitoring, we conclude that even if SpaceX has not sufficiently mitigated this risk, unacceptably high disposal failure rates will be identified and addressed.”
One can only hope the FCC is correct, and that it is addressing the challenges coming from SpaceX’s when it returns to the question of its 30,000 satellites.