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SpaceX’s Starlink satellite lawyers refute latest “flawed” OneWeb critique

Dozens of OneWeb satellites visualized during a future Ariane 6 constellation launch. (Arianespace)

After years of relentless legal badgering from internet satellite constellation competitor OneWeb, SpaceX’s regulatory and legal affairs team appears to have begun to (in a professional manner) lose patience with the constant barrage.

On February 21st, SpaceX published a withering refutation of OneWeb’s latest criticism that offered a range of no-holds-barred counterarguments, painting the competitor – or at least its legal affairs department – as an entity keen on trying to undermine Starlink with FCC-directed critiques based on flawed reasoning, false assumptions, misinterpretations, and more. Alongside a number of memorable one-liners and retorts, legal counselors William Wiltshire and Paul Caritj and SpaceX executives Patricia Cooper and David Goldman openly “wonder whether OneWeb would be satisfied with SpaceX operating at any altitude whatsoever.”

One of the first two prototype Starlink satellites separates from Falcon 9’s upper stage in February 2018. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Starlink modification request

In late 2018, SpaceX filed a request with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that would allow the company to significantly modify parts of its Starlink satellite constellation license, cutting 16 spacecraft from the original total of 4425 and moving Phase 1’s now-1584 satellites from an operating altitude of ~1100-1300 km (680-810 mi) to just 550 km (340 mi). Aside from further reducing the latency of communications, SpaceX also argues that “the principal reason” behind lowering the operational altitude of the first ~37% of Starlink satellites was “to [further] enhance the already considerable space safety attributes of [the] constellation.”

SpaceX’s first two Starlink prototype satellites are pictured here before their inaugural launch, showing off a thoroughly utilitarian bus and several advanced components. (SpaceX)

The safety benefits of a significantly lower orbit come into play when the potential dangers of space debris come into play. Put simply, satellites in lower orbits – particularly orbits below ~1000 km – end up experiencing far more drag from the upper vestiges of the Earth’s atmosphere, drag that acts like an automatic switch in the event that a given LEO satellite loses control. At 500 km and below, even small spacecraft with enough surface area will automatically reenter Earth’s atmosphere within just a few years (~5), while orbits around 1000-1500 km can stretch the time to reentry by a factor of 5-10, often taking decades. In other words, SpaceX’s desire to lower the initial operating orbit of ~1600 Starlink satellites would end up dramatically reducing the consequences the failure of one or several satellites would have on other spacecraft operating in the same orbital regions

“Rather than base its critiques on facts in SpaceX’s application or evidence in the record, OneWeb relies entirely on a collection of flawed assumptions cobbled together into an equally-flawed fictional scenario.

Overall, OneWeb rested its interference analysis entirely on incorrect assumptions and overlooked basic operational distinctions in the actual effect of the proposed SpaceX modification.”

SpaceX, FCC SAT-MOD-20181108-00083, 02/21/2019 [PDF]

A step further, there is a great deal more irony to be found in OneWeb’s attempt to block SpaceX from lowering the orbit of its first ~1600 satellites. In 2017 and 2018, the company repeatedly complained to the FCC about the fact that SpaceX’s Starlink constellation was to nominally be placed in orbits from ~1100-1300 km, effectively sandwiching OneWeb’s own ~1200 km constellation. OneWeb continues to demand an unreasonable level of special treatment from the FCC, hoping that the commission will allow it to establish a sort of buffer zone extending 125 km above and below its own constellation, basically demanding that a huge swath of low Earth orbit be OneWeb’s and OneWeb’s alone. In reality, this is likely nothing more than a thinly veiled anti-competitive tactic, in which success would almost entirely bar other prospective space-based internet providers from even considering the same orbit.

SpaceX never explicitly says as much but it becomes eminently clear that the authors behind this latest response are rapidly losing patience with OneWeb’s years of shoddy attempts at legally suppressing competition. Given that lowering the orbits of almost 40% of SpaceX’s first round of Starlink satellites would end up working in OneWeb’s claimed favor, moving them out of what OneWeb views as its orbital territory, arguing against such a change would explicitly contradict arguments the company has made in prior SpaceX-focused complaints to the FCC.

“OneWeb is now challenging SpaceX’s plan to reduce altitude to further enhance the space safety attributes of its system. Considering OneWeb’s frequent request that SpaceX take this exact step of moving farther away from OneWeb’s proposed constellation, one is left to wonder whether OneWeb would be satisfied with SpaceX operating at any altitude whatsoever.

SpaceX, 02/21/2019

SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite constellation visualized with just 1600 satellites. (Mark Handley)

SpaceX takes a different approach

Aside from seemingly hollow concerns about the “safety” of SpaceX’s request to lower Starlink satellite orbits, OneWeb further criticized SpaceX for what it perceived to be “operational setbacks” after launching a duo of prototype Starlink spacecraft, known as Tintin A and B. In essence, it appears that OneWeb made the bizarre decision to cite officially-unconfirmed and often-disputed reports that SpaceX’s prototypes were unable to reach their originally planned operational orbits of ~1125 km, effectively trapped at the ~515 km orbit they were dropped off in as a result of their shared launch.

“SpaceX originally expected to operate these satellites at approximately 515 km and then raise them to an altitude of 1,125 km for further testing, but chose not to do so. From this, OneWeb leaps to an unsupported conclusion that SpaceX’s experimental satellites faced “operational setbacks.” To the contrary, SpaceX made a conscious decision to remain at this optimal altitude for further experimentation.

Far from facing setbacks, the experimental program has validated SpaceX technology – including the Hall-effect thruster propulsion system and the capabilities of the communications payload. Thus, unlike OneWeb, SpaceX has successfully tested its spacecraft design in advance of initiating deployment of its commercial constellation.

SpaceX, 02/21/2019

While there was, in fact, some plausible evidence in mid-2018 that at least tentatively suggested that the spacecraft may have had issues with their first-generation ion thruster prototypes, it soon became clear that SpaceX and several major investors were sticking to the narrative that the Tintin twins were operating in fine health in orbit. It’s possible that SpaceX’s legal team and government relations executives are trying to aggressively spin on-orbit difficulties with the prototypes into good news, and the fact that SpaceX is requesting a modification to 550 km instead of Tintin A and B’s ~520 km orbits remains more than a little odd. However, including such brazen and open-faced lies in official legal/regulatory documents would be a deathwish SpaceX’s Starlink license in its entirety, while also begging for major SpaceX-aimed lawsuits and a general black cloud forming over the company.

If the FCC ultimately chooses to permit SpaceX’s Starlink license modification, the company’s first more or less operational Starlink launch – likely carrying anywhere from 10 to 30 satellites – could occur as early as late April or early May.

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SpaceX’s Starlink satellite lawyers refute latest “flawed” OneWeb critique
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