SpaceX wins FCC approval to launch first polar Starlink satellites amidst rideshare chaos

SpaceX has successfully recovered a reused Falcon payload fairing - intact - for the first time ever. (Richard Angle)

In a sign of the regulatory agency’s growing confidence in SpaceX, the FCC has rapidly approved a request to add ten Starlink satellites to an imminent Falcon 9 rideshare launch.

Known as Transporter-1 and originally scheduled to launch as early as December 2020 or January 14th, SpaceX delayed its first dedicated Smallsat Program mission to January 21st for unknown reasons last week. While there is no confirmed cause, any one of several recent events could have easily contributed to or fully caused the delay. In a rare ground processing failure, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) revealed that two “risk reduction” technology demonstrator satellites were damaged on January 4th when their deployment mechanism was accidentally triggered during processing.

In other words, the two spacecraft may have been shot out of their dispensers by their spring-loaded deployment mechanisms, falling onto a processing bench or even off of the much taller payload stack. Meanwhile, on the very same day, space tug startup Momentus Space announced that it was removing its first Vigoride tug from Transporter-1 “for additional time…to secure FAA approval of…payloads.” Finally, once more on January 4th, SpaceX filed a request with the FCC to manifest and launch its first polar Starlink satellites to better take advantage of Transporter-1’s full capacity.

If launched, the ten spacecraft would be the first of several hundred planned polar Starlink satellites necessary for SpaceX’s massive internet constellation to serve some of the most remote communities on Earth. Referring to an orbit centered more around Earth’s north and south poles than its equator, the polar Starlink launch opportunity is available because SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission – set to carry several dozen small satellites – is headed for a nearly polar “sun-synchronous orbit” (SSO).

For Starlink, sun-synchronous and polar orbit satellites will allow the constellation to serve customers and communities in high northern latitudes – possibly up to and including the Arctic and Antarctic once fully deployed.

SpaceX supported the US East Coast’s first polar launch in more than half a century in August 2020, effectively opening the same polar corridor that’s now allowing the company to launch Transporter-1 – and polar Starlink satellites – from the same pads it launches almost every other mission. It remains to be seen if SpaceX will one day perform dedicated polar Starlink launches from its West Coast launch pad – reactivated in November 2020 after spending almost a year and a half mothballed.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Starlink’s imminent polar launch debut is just how quickly both SpaceX and the FCC acted to make it happen. When SpaceX requested permission on January 4th, then just 10 days from the launch date, the historical odds of the FCC responding at all – let alone approving the request – in time were practically zero. Instead, the agency got back to SpaceX with a lengthy conditional approval (PDF) four days later. Although the FCC has yet to approve a request to move almost all of SpaceX’s 4,408 Phase 1 Starlink satellites to much lower orbits, the agency was apparently chomping at the bit to allow a limited trial at those lower orbits.

Dropped from an orbital altitude of ~1200 km (~750 mi) to 560 km (~350 mi), the ten Starlink satellites SpaceX now has permission to launch on Transporter-1 likely represent less than 20% of one polar ‘plane’ of Starlink satellites. In simpler terms, those ten satellites will only be capable of supporting a very limited test of polar Starlink internet, likely resulting in intermittent, unreliable coverage that won’t be viable for civil use until the FCC permits SpaceX to launch one or several full planes. Still, receiving approval to launch any number of satellites mere days after filing a request suggests that full FCC approval is a now question of “when,” not “if.”

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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