SpaceX: A Small Tweak to Starlink's Plans May Fast Track Its Space Internet

SpaceX has amended its plan to built out an array of internet-providing, Starlink satellites. Most recently, the company requested that a portion of its constellation of spacecraft be placed at a lower altitude to avoid creating any unnecessary space junk.

That’s according to a new application filed with the Federal Communications Commission on November 9, which requested that 1,584 of its satellites be placed 550 kilometers above the Earth’s surface instead of the originally planned 1,150 km. SpaceX maintains that this would reduce the risk of adding to the already thousands of tons of floating space debris orbiting the planet.

“This modest modification to the SpaceX Authorization will slightly reduce the total number of spacecraft in the constellation, meet all required protection criteria for other systems operating in the same frequencies, and cause no overall increase in radio frequency interference,” stated the document.

Reducing the amount of space junk is a worthy goal in and of itself: The more space junk there is floating above the atmosphere, the harder it is to get supplies and crew in and out of space safely. But lowering their altitude has other advantages. A lower array allows SpaceX to cover the same area with 16 fewer spacecraft, which also reduces costs. Plus, the closer they are to Earth, the quicker they’ll be disintegrated in the atmosphere once they’ve stopped functioning.

How SpaceX plans on changing its initial Starlink plan.SpaceX

If one of the Starlink satellites were to fail at an altitude of 1,150 km, for example, it would float around for hundreds of years before falling back down to Earth, according to the document. At 550 km it would take “less than five years” for a defunct satellite to be disposed of.

Every extra bit of real estate is valuable, as SpaceX envisions Starlink as a swarm of 12,000 satellites providing high-speed internet the entire globe. As it stands, the FCC has only approved 4,425 of these broadband satellites to take to be in orbit. One of the major roadblocks to green-lighting the rest is space pollution: The government agency said as much when it signed off on the third Starlink launch back in March.

“It would be premature to grant SpaceX’s application based on its current orbital debris mitigation plan,” stated the approval document.

The company’s ability to make strides in reducing Starlink’s likely impact on space pollution seems likely to better its chances of getting the entirety of Starlink green-lit by the FCC in the future. Early tests of the system have proven successful.

SpaceX engineers have already used the internet connection provided by the two demo satellites to play online video games and watch 4k YouTube videos, as Reuters recently reported. The company has stated that it’s “pretty much on target” to begin providing similar service to a wider audience by 2020 with initial launches beginning in mid-2019.

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