Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have become “hundreds of millionaires” thanks to their successful business ventures in largely unrelated industries here on Earth. But now they are quietly vying outside the Earth’s atmosphere for space to deploy the corresponding giant satellite constellations that broadcast the Internet, known as Starlink and Kuiper.
Earlier this year, SpaceX filed a modification request with the FCC, asking the federal agency to allow Starlink to change a series of satellite parameters. The app crashed after the ownership of Amazon Kuiper Systems expressed concern to the FCC, arguing that the changes requested by SpaceX would lead to a future orbital overlap of Starlink satellites and its own satellites operating at similar altitudes.
In particular, SpaceX proposed to reduce the operating altitude of a future cluster of Starlink satellites from 1110-1.325 kilometers, its previous range, to 540-570 kilometers. The company says the deployment of satellites at this relatively low altitude will help reduce broadband latency and make it easier for future space debris to de-orbit into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The problem is that it is too close to where Kuiper wants to deploy satellites. Kuiper’s lowest orbital envelope is 590 km, with a tolerance of 9 km above or below. And the upper end of the modified SpaceX orbital shell is 570 km, with a tolerance of 30 km. This means when the constellation Kuiper is fully deployed (the 590-kilometer cluster is the last group that Kuiper will deploy), the Starlink and Kuiper satellites are likely to share a 20-kilometer orbit.
SpaceX made a big discount this week. In a letter to the FCC on Tuesday, written by SpaceX satellite policy chief David Goldman, the company agreed to limit all Starlink satellites to no higher than 580km, which is just 1km below the lowest range of Kuiper height after Kuiper launches.
“As a result of discussions with Amazon, SpaceX is now committed to accepting the condition that Amazon has offered to resolve its concerns,” the letter said. “By resolving this issue, SpaceX wants the Commission to provide a modification quickly.”
In particular, SpaceX called on the FCC to allow the deployment of a cluster of 58 Starlink satellites over the Arctic Circle, as proposed in the original app, as the company does not want to miss a launch window in December.
SpaceX stressed that the implementation of this pole shell is a key step in testing the Starlink service in some of the most remote areas in the world, including Alaska. The company added that providing coverage through polar orbits will contribute to national security by supporting critical government missions in areas where satellite Internet access is the only option.
But Kuiper has other concerns about SpaceX’s plans. In its request for modification, SpaceX also proposed a reduction the minimum angle of elevation of Starlink ground stations from 40 ° to 25 °, so that compensate for the reduced satellite coverage due to changes in altitude (lower satellites cover less ground when transmitting signals).
Kuiper claims that lower elevation angles, combined with a decrease in altitude, will increase interference events between the two constellations by up to 250%. However, Kuiper will take some time to verify these estimates, as it has not yet deployed satellites.
Amazon’s subsidiary plans to eventually launch 3,200 satellites to form the constellation. The company received permission to implement the FCC in July.