Viasat, a satellite operator, is currently asking the FCC to stop SpaceX from launching any more Starlink satellites while they launch a thorough environmental review in front of a courtroom. Megaconstellation Starlink is seeing rapid growth and has launched nearly 700 broadband satellites since January of this year.
As of Friday, Viasat asked the Federal Communications Commission to pause the April 27 license modification that would allow SpaceX to continue its plans of building out its broadband constellation. The existing constellation already tops more than 1,600 satellites.
On May 15 SpaceX surpassed its 1,584 permitted satellites in 550-kilometer orbits that fell under a previous license by launching 52 additional satellites. And on May 26 they are scheduled to launch 60 more.
Viasat’s arguments to stop or slow the expansion of Starlink depends solely on being able to convince a federal appeals court that the FCC was ‘legally obligated’ to assess the megaconstellation’s environmental impacts prior to approving SpaceX’s previous request to double the number of satellites it originally intended to operate from 550 kilometers.
Originally, the FCC approved a 4,409-satellite constellation that included 2,825 satellites in orbit ranging from 1,100-1,300 kilometers, and 1,584 satellites at 550 kilometers. Then on April 27 SpaceX requested a license modification to move the higher orbiting satellites in to the 550-kilometer set. And also making an adjustment to the number of satellites in the constellation from 4,409 to 4,408.
The company claims the modification will improve any signal lag, or latency, between space and the ground that would ultimately improve the quality of video calls, gaming, and any other activities on the network.
The FCC awarded SpaceX $890 million from the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) in December. RDOF’s mission is to bring broadband services to homes and businesses being unserved in the United States. A key qualifying factor to receive funding is low latency.
Since January, roughly 700 additional satellites have launched totaling more than 1,600 Starlink satellites currently in orbit. And a Falcon 9 was scheduled to launch on May 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida which would be the 13th Starlink launch in 2021.
Until federal courts can review the legality of the license modification, Viasat has asked the FCC to pause any more launches.
Viasat, based out of Carlsbad, California, provides broadband services as well, via geostationary orbit (GEO). The company petitioned the FCC to thoroughly review the environmental impacts prior to awarding license modifications as per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA currently exempts satellite systems, but Viasat claims this did not happen despite the megaconstellation bringing a new list of considerations forward for regulators.
Some astronomers are worried about how the constellation’s reflectivity could affect ground-based telescope observations and these concerns led to a request for an environmental assessment.
By approving the license modification, the FCC greatly rejected these requests and urged SpaceX to work closely with astronomers to attempt to mitigate the brightness of the satellites. The FCC listed several reasons for rejecting the requests and ultimately not performing environmental assessments. They questioned whether or not light pollution is covered through NEPA, and noted that the Federal Aviation Administration performs its own environmental reviews as part of the licensing process to launch.
According to a May 21 filing to the FCC, Viasat claims that NEPA is required to at least consider the environmental harms prior to granting SpaceX’s application. Harms considered include orbital debris, light pollution, and the overall effects of disintegrating satellites on the atmosphere.
“We believe the FCC failed to conduct a legally required environmental review under NEPA and did not honor the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to a science-based approach to protecting the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate, space and the well-being of U.S. citizens before authorizing the launch of thousands of new Starlink satellites into low-earth orbit,” John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer for global government and regulatory affairs, said in an emailed statement.
“As such, we have asked the Commission to stay its order until the federal courts review its legality.”
If the FCC does not comply and approve the stay by June 1, Viasat is prepared and fully intends to head to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in an effort to seek a stay and review of the modification order.
SpaceX declined responding to comment requests.
Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine joined Viasat’s board of directors this past April.
Bridenstine previously stated in an interview that the threat of the megaconstellations safety in space, and the overall space access environment were ‘issues on his radar’.
Currently in development for Viasat is a three-satellite Viasat-3 broadband constellation in geostationary orbit (GEO) with intentions to expand its operations globally, and will provide three terabits per second of output.
With a targeted launch slated for early next year, the first Viasat-3 satellite is set to serve the Americas.