SpaceX’s application to add thousands of satellites to its proposed Starlink communications constellation has been approved by the FCC, though it will be some time before the company actually puts those birds in the air.
Starlink is just one of many companies that the FCC gave the green light to today at its monthly meeting. Kepler, Telesat, and LeoSat also got approval for various services, though with 140, 117, and 78 satellites proposed respectively, they aren’t nearly as ambitious in scale. Several others were approved as well with smaller proposals.
SpaceX officially applied to put these 7,518 satellites into orbit — alongside the already approved 4,409 — back in March of 2017. Last month the FCC indicated it planned to approve the request by circulating a draft order (PDF) to that effect, which it today made official.
These satellites would orbit at the extremely low (for satellites) altitude of around 340 kilometers — even lower than the 550-kilometer orbit it plans to put 1,584 satellites in from the other group.
Low orbits decay quickly and satellites may only last a couple years before they burn up. But being closer to the Earth also means that latency and required power for signals is considerably lower. It requires more satellites to cover a given area, but if managed properly it’ll produce a faster, more reliable connection or augment the system in areas where demand is high. Since SpaceX has only launched two test satellites so far, this is more or less theoretical, though.
The satellites would also be using V-band radio rather than the more common Ka/Ku band often employed by this general type of service, which as it points out will keep those popular bands unclogged as satellite numbers multiply.
Launches of the new system should begin some time next year if the new management at Starlink wants to keep their jobs. It would take quite a long time to get enough satellites into orbit that the service would work even in barebones fashion, but it isn’t bad going from idea to minimum viable product in a handful of years, when that MVP has to be hundreds of satellites actually in space.