Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) internet satellite venture, Starlink, has spawned an unlikely alliance of competitors, regulators, and experts who say that the aerospace manufacturer is building a near-monopoly that is threatening space safety and the environment.
The Starlink project is authorized to send some 12,000 satellites into orbit to beam superfast internet to every corner of the Earth. It is seeking permission for another 30,000.
Now, rival companies such as Boeing Co., Viasat Inc., Hughes Network Systems, and OneWeb Global Ltd. are challenging Starlink’s space race in front of regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Some complain that Starlink satellites are blocking their own devices’ signals and have physically endangered their fleets (OneWeb and SpaceX satellites were close to colliding a few weeks ago).
Starlink has already disrupted the industry even though it is still in beta testing. The Elon Musk-owned endeavor has even spurred the European Union to develop a rival space-based internet project to be launched at the end of 2021.
The critics’ main argument is that Musk’s launch-first, upgrade-later principle, which made his electric car manufacturer, Tesla, a top company in its industry, gives priority to speed over quality, stuffing Earth’s already crowded orbit with satellites that may need fixing after they have launched.
“SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” said Chris McLaughlin, government affairs chief for rival OneWeb, according to LiveMint. “Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them, and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2019, SpaceX informed that around 5% of the first batch of Starlink satellites failed and were left to gradually fall back to earth and vaporize in the process. In late 2020, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics calculated that the Starlink failure rate was nearly 3%. Hel said Starlink had vastly improved and the failure rate was on track to improve further below 1%.
Even with the constant improvement, Mr. McDowell said, Starlink is on the verge of operating so many satellites in space that even a low failure rate would mean a relatively high threat to orbital safety because of the potential for collisions. “They clearly have been making continuous improvements…but it’s a challenging thing they are doing and it’s not clear that they will be able to manage the final constellation,” he said.
Starlink operates more than 1,300 spacecraft in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) and is adding around 120 more every month. Orbital space is finite, and universal regulations are lacking, this means companies are going up in space and setting up their satellites on a first-come, first-served basis. And Musk is on track to stake a claim for most of the free orbital real estate, largely because, unlike competitors, the billionaire owns his own rockets.
In the coming days, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to approve SpaceX’s request to modify its license and allow an even higher number of satellites to orbit at a lower altitude of around 550 kilometers (approximately 342 miles). If approved, satellites sent to space by competitor companies would have to navigate around SpaceX’s fleet to place their own spacecraft.
The competitors have asked the FCC to impose conditions on Musk’s company, including lowering its fleet’s failure rate to 0.001% and improving collision-avoidance capabilities as Starlink satellites have low maneuverability, meaning that other firms’ craft has to act when collisions threaten.
“You should have fewer satellites and make them more capable,” Mark Dankberg, Viasat founder and executive chairman, said.
On Twitter, Mr. Musk commented on Mr. Dankberg’s earlier warnings that his company posed a hazard to orbital traffic by tweeting: “Starlink ‘poses a hazard’ to Viasat’s profits, more like it.”
A spokesman for Boeing, which is also challenging Starlink at the FCC, said it is “critically important to the future of a safe and sustainable orbital environment that standards be globally consistent and enable a competitive playing field.”
Satellites orbit the earth at 18,000 miles an hour, in the region of space where Starlink operates, which means any collision could spread high-velocity debris making the orbit unusable for years.
Starlink hasn’t revealed details about their AI collision avoidance system that was said to be the reason why SpaceX could not maneuver its satellite and OneWeb had to do all the maneuvering when they almost collided. Mr. McDowell said it was hard to take any such system seriously when it remains unclear what data it uses to operate.
LEO is getting crowded with broadband satellite constellations: Britain and Bharti Global owned OneWeb aims to put out about 700 satellites, Amazon.com Inc.’s Project Kuiper about 3,200 satellites, and Telesat of Canada around 300. Russia and China are working on their own, potentially massive, constellations.
An EU official said that owning such a constellation is a strategic priority for the bloc. They are expected to publish a road map for a public-private partnership to create a broadband satellite fleet worth around €6 billion, equivalent to almost $7.22 billion (at the time of writing this), by the end of the year.
Space-safety experts say the number of projects means more regulation is needed to avoid potential catastrophes.
“It’s a race to the bottom in terms of getting as much stuff up there as possible to claim orbital real estate,” said Moriba Jah, associate professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. “Musk is just doing what’s legal…but legal is not necessarily safe or sustainable.”
The leading German telecom provider Deutsche Telekom recently signaled a willingness to join with Starlink.
“I’m a great admirer of Elon Musk and his ideas,” Deutsche Telekom Chief Executive Timotheus Höttges said in January.