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SpaceX Authorization Raises the Issue of Orbital Congestion

Randy Sukow Mar 30, 2018

The FCC yesterday announced that it had approved an application authorizing Space Exploration Holdings (SpaceX) to launch a huge non-geostationary orbiting (NGSO) constellation of 4,425 satellites. The system, when fully completed years in the future, could deliver high-speed, low-latency internet service equivalent to today’s fiber networks to the entire globe.

Chairman Ajit Pai in recent weeks had been urging fellow commissioners to act on the SpaceX petition. “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.  And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available,” he said in a Feb. 14 statement.

While fellow commissioners did respond to Pai’s request, at the same time Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel raised an important point about the coming era of small satellites covering all corners of the sky. “The FCC has to tackle the growing challenge posed by orbital debris,” she said following release of the authorization. “Today, the risk of debris-generating collusions is reasonably low.  But they’ve already happened—and as more actors participate in the space industry and as more satellites of smaller size that are harder to track are launched, the frequency of these accidents is bound to increase.”

The text of the SpaceX authorization order touches on the orbital debris issue. In June 2017, the Commission adopted a similar authorization for OneWeb, a British-based satellite company, to launch a smaller 720-satellite NGSO system. During the comment period on the SpaceX application, OneWeb requested that the FCC create a 125 kilometer “buffer zone” between SpaceX and OneWeb orbital paths to avoid potential collisions.

The FCC did not act on the OneWeb request. “Imposition of such a zone could effectively preclude the proposed operation of SpaceX’s system, and OneWeb has not provided legal or technical justification for a buffer zone of this size,” it said. The Commission instead encouraged SpaceX, OneWeb and other NGSO companies to negotiate their own procedures for avoiding physical contact. However, it left open the possibility that it could intervene should the companies fail to reach a solution.

The complexity of orbital systems will only increase over time. SpaceX is the fourth and by far the largest NGSO proposal to get FCC authorization so far. However, OneWeb has begun exploring plans to increase its system from 720 satellites to 1,980. “To accommodate the additional 1,260, OneWeb said it would double the number of orbital planes from 18 to 36, and increase the maximum number of satellites per plane from 40 to 55,” SpaceNews said in a March 20 report.

And, according to an article in IEEE Spectrum, the FCC could soon be taking stern enforcement actions against another satellite company over an orbital debris issue.

A company called Swarm Technologies applied for an experimental license to launch four “SpaceBee” prototype satellites for a future constellation to support the internet of things. The FCC in December 2017 dismissed the Swarm application out of fear that the SpaceBees were too small for ground radar to track. Swarm Technologies nevertheless launched the four satellites in January without authorization.

The article reports that it is unclear how the FCC may respond. However, it cites engineers from companies outside of Swarm Technologies who say they have been able to track the SpaceBees.

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