In the latest trials and tribulations of a SpaceX Starlink competitor that went bankrupt after spending $3 billion to launch just 74 small internet satellites, it appears that OneWeb knowingly misled both media and US regulators over a claimed “near-miss” with a Starlink satellite.
Back on April 9th, OneWeb went public with claims that SpaceX had mishandled its response to a routine satellite collision avoidance warning from the US military, which monitors the location of satellites and space debris. According to OneWeb government affairs chief Chris McLaughlin, SpaceX disabled an automated system designed to detect and automatically command Starlink satellite collision avoidance maneuvers to let OneWeb move its satellite instead. McLaughlin also stated that “Coordination is the issue – it is not sufficient to say ‘I’ve got an automated system.’”
He also recently criticized the maneuverability of Starlink satellites, claiming that “Starlink’s engineers said they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and switched off the collision avoidance system so OneWeb could maneuver around the Starlink satellite without interference.” As it turns out, OneWeb’s “near-miss” appears to have been a farce and the company scrambled to promise to retract those statements in an April 20th meeting with the FCC and SpaceX.
In far more egregious comments made on April 20th to the Wall Street Journal, a publication with a long history of blindly disseminating anti-SpaceX rhetoric, McLaughlin likened OneWeb’s satellites to “Ford Focus” cars and attempted to lambast Starlink satellites by comparing them to “Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether.”
Over the past 17 months, SpaceX has launched more than 1380 operational Starlink v1.0 satellites, some 870 of which are operational. Another ~440 are in the process of reaching operational orbits. All told, some 1365 are still in orbit and around 1345 of those satellites are working as expected for a total Starlink v1.0 failure rate of roughly 2.5%. As is SpaceX’s bread and butter, however, reliability has been continuously improving and of ~960 Starlink satellites launched over the last ~12 months, the overall failure rate has dropped to less than 1% – an almost threefold improvement.
After exiting bankruptcy last November, OneWeb has completed just two more launches for a total of 140 operational satellites in orbit of a planned ~650. Operating at a much higher ~1200 km (~750 mi) orbit, any failure of OneWeb satellites would produce debris that could remain in orbit for decades, whereas SpaceX has explicitly chosen much lower ~550 km (~340 mi) orbits, meaning that debris reenters in a matter of years. At Starlink’s sub-300-kilometer (~185 mi) insertion orbit, any faulty satellites screened during SpaceX’s checkout process reenter in a matter of days or weeks thanks to drag from Earth’s atmosphere.
The first phase of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation will require approximately 4400 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) and the company is already almost a third of the way to that milestone. A second phase could see those numbers grow as high as ~12,000, followed by a third phase with more than 40,000 satellites much further down the road. Relative to OneWeb, Starlink is dramatically more ambitious and each SpaceX satellite offers superior bandwidth and latency in a bid to blanket the Earth in affordable, high-quality broadband internet.
Of course, as a consequence of needing so many satellites to build out a network with enough bandwidth to serve tens to hundreds of millions of people, there is an obvious risk that unreliable satellites could make LEO a much more challenging place to operate for both SpaceX and the rest of the world. It also demands an entirely new approach to collision avoidance given the impracticality of human operators manually managing a fleet of thousands – or tens of thousands – of satellites.
Towards that end, SpaceX is developing an autonomous collision avoidance system – though virtually nothing is known about that system outside of the company, creating a far from optimal situation for all other satellite operators. Nevertheless, aside from one publicized avoidance maneuver in 2019, SpaceX appears to be quickly becoming a responsible and (mostly) transparent operator and custodian.
In an apparent attempt to capitalize on vague fears of “space debris” and satellite collisions, OneWeb – or perhaps just McLaughlin – took it upon itself to consciously misconstrue a routine, professional process of collision-avoidance coordination between OneWeb and SpaceX. McLaughlin ran a gauntlet of media outlets to drag SpaceX through the mud and criticize both the company’s technology and response, ultimately claiming that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite was incapable of maneuvering out of the way.
Instead, according to a precise, evidenced timeline of events presented by SpaceX to the FCC, the coordination was routine, uneventful, and entirely successful. OneWeb itself explicitly asked SpaceX to disable its autonomous collision avoidance software and allow the company to maneuver its own satellite out of the way after SpaceX made it clear that the Starlink spacecraft could also manage the task. The event was neither “urgent” or a “close call,” as OneWeb and media outlets later claimed. SpaceX says it has been coordinating similar avoidance maneuvers with OneWeb since March 2020.
Most damningly, SpaceX says that immediately after OneWeb disseminated misleading quotes about the event to the media, “OneWeb met with [FCC] staff and Commissioners [to demand that] unilateral conditions [be] placed on SpaceX’s operations.” Those conditions could have actually made coordination harder, “demonstrating more of a concern with limiting [OneWeb’s] competitors than with a genuine concern for space safety.” Crucially, despite lobbying to restrict its competitors, “OneWeb [has] argued forcefully that [it] should be exempt from Commission rules for orbital debris mitigation due to their status as non-U.S. operators.”
In simple terms, OneWeb is trying to exploit the FCC to suppress its competition while letting it roam free of the exact same regulations. Meanwhile, SpaceX is focused on launching satellites and serving tens of thousands of beta customers as Starlink speeds towards virtually uninterrupted global coverage barely a year and a half after operational launches began – all while coordinating with dozens of other satellite operators to be the best ‘neighbor’ it can be in space.