SpaceX Shelves Alternative Configuration for Second-Generation Starlink Satellites

In a move that could be seen as a partial victory for Amazon’s Kuiper Systems, SpaceX withdrew its proposal for an alternative configuration for the second-generation Starlink satellites.

Kuiper Systems filed an objection to SpaceX’s proposals for upgraded Starlink satellites with the FCC, saying that it created “two mutually exclusive configurations” that created more work for competitors. It said that its employees would have to do double the work to account for two distinct configurations and avoid possible interference between the two constellations every time it launches satellites.

The FCC approved its Kuiper Project, a proposed constellation of 3,236 Internet-providing satellites in low-Earth orbit. Amazon plans to invest $10 billion in the Kuiper Project.

“Legacy” satellite Internet services like ViaSat launched their satellites into geosynchronous orbits that stay in a fixed point relative to a specific point on Earth’s surface. One downside to geosynchronous orbits is that they are farther from Earth, which means longer response times. The higher latency opens up a competitive opportunity for constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink. They occupy lower orbits for lower latency that can be attractive to customers who use online applications that require fast response times.

ViaSat has also filed regulatory challenges and a court case in a regulatory battle against Starlink, which drew one of Elon Musk’s sharp comments on Twitter.

The current deadline for comments on SpaceX’s application is on January 24. Kuiper Systems’ request for a 30-day extension to allow for more replies got the expected back-and-forth fighting between the two parties.

SpaceX told the FCC that Kuiper Systems wanted to delay competitors “to compensate for Amazon’s failure to make progress of its own.” Kuiper Systems fired back that SpaceX and Musk seemed to believe that “rules are for other people.” SpaceX called that response a useless “diatribe.”

SpaceX now says the second configuration isn’t needed in a response to a query that the FCC sent in a letter. It says the alternative was proposed due to “uncertainty in development” and cited the length of time that it can take regulators like the FCC to process an application.

The long regulatory wait times have often been a source of aggravation for CEO Elon Musk’s companies, ranging from causing delays in SpaceX’s Starship-related test launches to holding up the opening of Tesla’s Gigafactory Berlin. ViaSat’s challenge is not even the only time that Musk openly expressed frustration with the often slow and outdated regulatory process.

SpaceX’s chosen configuration contains 29,988 satellites that will be launched into orbital altitudes ranging from 340 km to 614 km. SpaceX says it could start launching them as early as March 2022, pending regulatory approval.

SpaceX is rapidly closing in on 2,000 Starlink satellites in orbit and already boasts test speeds that are close to traditional “landline” broadband Internet services. Late last year, Starlink was nearly ready to come out of the “Better than Nothing Beta.”

The Kuiper Project plans to launch its first test satellites in Q4 2022, putting it four years behind SpaceX’s first launch of Starlink satellites.