Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos became “centibillionaires” thanks to their successful business ventures in what have been largely independent industries here on Earth. But now they are quietly fighting with each other outside the Earth’s atmosphere for space territory to implement their respective giant internet-radiant satellite constellations 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 number of satellite parameters. This application is stuck after Amazon-owned Kuiper Systems raised concerns with the FCC, arguing that the changes requested by SpaceX would cause future orbital overlap of Starlink satellites and its own satellites operating at similar heights.
Specifically, SpaceX proposed lowering the altitudes of a future cluster of Starlink satellites from 1,110-1,325 kilometers, its previous range, to 540-570 kilometers. The company claimed that implementing satellites at this relatively low altitude would help reduce broadband signaling and make it easier for any future space debris to remove orbits in Earth’s atmosphere.
The problem is that it is too close to where Kuiper wants to deploy satellites. Kuiper’s lowest runway shell is 590 km with a tolerance of 9 km either above or below. And the upper end of SpaceX’s modified orbital shell is 570 km with a tolerance of 30 km. It means when the Kuiper constellation is fully deployed (the 590 km cluster is the last group Kuiper will roll out), Starlink and Kuiper satellites would likely share a 20 km orbital shell.
SpaceX made a big concession this week. In a letter to the FCC on Tuesday written by SpaceX’s head of satellite policy, David Goldman, the company agreed to limit all Starlink satellites to operate at no higher than 580 km, which is only 1 km below Kuiper’s lowest altitude range when Kuiper starts.
“As a result of discussions with Amazon, SpaceX has now committed to accept the condition that Amazon proposed to address its concerns,” the letter said. “With this issue settled, SpaceX requests that the Commission grant its amendment as soon as possible.”
Specifically, the SpaceX urged the FCC to approve the implementation of a cluster of 58 Starlink satellites over the Arctic Circle as proposed in the original application, because the company will not miss a launch window in December.
SpaceX stressed that the rollout of this polar shell is an important step in testing the Starlink service in some of the most remote areas of the world, including Alaska. The company added that bringing 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 with SpaceX’s plans. In its request for amendment, SpaceX also proposed to reduce the minimum elevation angle for Starlink earth stations from 40 ° to 25 ° to compensate for reduced satellite coverage due to altitude changes (lower satellites cover less ground when transmitting signals).
Kuiper claimed that lower elevation angles combined with elevation reduction would increase interference intervals between the two constellations by up to 250 percent. However, it will take some time for Kuiper to verify these estimates, as it has not yet put any satellites into use.
The Amazon subsidiary eventually plans to launch 3,200 satellites to form the constellation. The company received the FCC’s permit for implementation in July.