Judges Reject ViaSat Case Against SpaceX’s Starlink

A three-judge panel presiding over the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has rejected a bid by ViaSat for a freeze on launches of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, saying that “Viasat has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.” The panel did approve expediting the appeal process, meaning that there is likely to be a ruling on the appeal faster than normal.

ViaSat had filed its case against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), alleging that the regulator improperly approved the launches of Starlink satellites without giving due consideration to the environmental impact of the launches or the number of satellites that SpaceX intends to build for Starlink. SpaceX plans to launch as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit and conducts launches of new satellites as often as once every two weeks.

“This court is likely to vacate the [FCC] order and direct the commission to conduct at least some NEPA review of Starlink,” Viasat wrote, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires regulatory agencies to consider environmental impact when considering applications for approval of a new project that falls under their jurisdiction.

However, the FCC disputed this claim, saying in its own paperwork related to the case, “As to each category of alleged environmental impact, the Commission considered the alleged effect in detail and found insufficient evidence that SpaceX’s license modification… requires further review.” It also echoed Musk’s frustration with competitors who file frequent complaints with government agencies by saying that Viasat “relies on speculative assertions of primarily economic harm that do not demonstrate a likelihood that Viasat has standing, much less show irreparable injury justifying the extraordinary remedy of a stay pending appeal.”

The FCC recently approved SpaceX’s application to launch some Starlink satellites to an altitude of 540-570 kilometers, which is less than half of the altitude of 1,100-1,300 kilometers that was approved in 2018. SpaceX says that the lower altitude will help it provide low-latency Internet service from orbit.

Although there is a risk that a Starlink satellite in such a low orbit will collide with something else that is being launched, OneWeb’s initial claim that one of SpaceX’s satellites nearly collided with one of its own later turned out to be false. NASA has also signed an agreement with SpaceX in which the two parties agreed to share orbital data about their respective assets in orbit in order to reduce the risk of a potentially dangerous collision.

When ViaSat filed its initial complaint with the FCC, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk blasted the company’s senior personnel, saying that they were simply afraid of competition. ViaSat, OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and SpaceX’s Starlink are all competing for what SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell says could be a $1 trillion market due to Internet-providing satellites’ potential to provide service to regions that are difficult for “traditional” ISPs to reach.

SpaceX’s official response to the lawsuit accused ViaSat of a “transparent bid to co-opt the National Environmental Policy Act and the procedure for extraordinary stay relief as weapons of commercial warfare.” It went on to accuse ViaSat of specifically targeting Starlink with its filing of environmental concerns while ignoring all other approvals of privately owned satellite constellations.