SpaceX, the aerospace company built and run by Elon Musk, continues to blaze the trail as it looks to establish dominance in commercial travel. However, the company is doing some impressive work on its Starlink satellite project as well.
Last Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a proposal from SpaceX to make modifications to its Starlink satellite license. The company had filed the modification request a little over a year ago, asking that after the launch of its first 1,584 satellites, it should be able to change the next 2,814 satellites to a different altitude.
The new altitude will be about 570 km above sea level - a much different stance from the over 1,000 km that had been intended. With SpaceX already having about 1,400 Starlink satellites in orbit, the company would have had to wait for FCC authorization before continuing with its satellite launch campaign.
In a press release, the FCC explained: “We conclude that grant of the SpaceX Third Modification Application will serve the public interest. Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems.”
Musk, who has had several run-ins with regulators in the past, praised the resolution. In a tweet, the billionaire called the decision a “fair and sensible” one, adding that he agrees with many regulators “99% of the time.”
Rivals Chime In To Block SpaceX’s Win
Despite the success with the project, several of SpaceX’s rivals were quick to protest this development.
Amazon, which is working on its own satellite program (called Kuiper), claimed that SpaceX’s new proposal would interfere with other satellite networks in the Earth’s orbit. Other competitors also argued that the change was too significant for the FCC to simply rule on. Instead, SpaceX's Starlink network should be included in a broader processing round that will work with other satellite systems.
As expected, Amazon has been SpaceX’s fiercest rival. The e-commerce giant’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is also the head of Blue Origin - another company that rivals SpaceX in aerospace. Amazon’s feud with SpaceX became a public spectacle in January when Musk claimed on Twitter that Amazon was looking to “hamstring” Starlink.
At the time, Musk claimed that Kuiper was several years away from operation at best. While Amazon is yet to state when Kuiper will launch, it got approval from the FCC last year - a process which required that it deploy half of its planned satellites within six years. This means that Amazon plans to deploy at least 1,600 Kuiper satellites by July 2026.
The FCC decision isn’t the only thing Bezos has to gripe about. Last month, SpaceX won a reported $2.9 billion contract to help NASA build its lunar lander system. Other companies that had submitted bids included Blue Origin and Dynetics. However, with SpaceX submitting a cheaper bid, the agency gave the contract to the company.
Blue Origin and Dynetics have now protested the contract, arguing that NASA had been unfair by considering the financial implication of the bids. The companies have requested that the Office of Government Accountability review the contract - a process that kicks off a 100-day review stage for the contract to be considered before a decision can be made.
The prediction is that SpaceX’s NASA contract will move forward - just like Starlink.
SpaceX Shrugs Off the Haters
Despite the objection of companies like Amazon, SpaceX has continued to move forward with its Starlink project.
On Tuesday, the California-based company launched a full stack of 60 satellites into orbit, with its Falcon 9 rocket returning to the Earth without a hitch whatsoever. The rocket took off at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, returning to the Earth after nine minutes and touching down on the famous “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship.
The launch had been planned as part of a SpaceX doubleheader, with the company looking to launch another Starship at its South Texas facility. However, it pushed the latter flight to May 6th, while Falcon 9 was cleared for liftoff.
Starlink is also seeing some significant success on the business end. On Tuesday, the company confirmed that it had gotten 500,000 orders for the Starlink internet service. At a launch broadcast, Siva Bharadvaj, the company’s operations engineer, claimed that over 500,000 people had placed orders for the internet service, putting the company in a good position when it rolls out the internet service.
Starlink is set to be the world’s largest satellite constellation. SpaceX began a public beta for the satellite service in October 2020, pricing its services at $99 a month. Users will also pay a $499 upfront cost to get the Starlink Kit - a pack that includes a Wi-Fi router and a user terminal.
SpaceX began accepting pre-orders of $99 in February, although all pre-orders are refundable. A filing with federal regulators confirmed that there were already 10,000 Starlink customers. It is unclear how many will eventually become paying monthly Starlink subscribers. However, these numbers are beyond encouraging for a company that looks to reach more people over time.