The Race Between SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon Is Heating Up

  • by

A stack of 60 Starlink satellites seen in space after a launch. SpaceX

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos became “centibillionaires” thanks to their successful business ventures in what have been largely unrelated industries here on Earth. But now, they are quietly rivaling each other outside of Earth’s atmosphere for space territory to deploy their respective giant internet-beaming satellite constellations known as Starlink and Kuiper.

Earlier this year, SpaceX filed a modification request with the FCC, asking the federal agency to allow Starlink to change a series of satellite parameters. That application got stuck after Amazon-owned Kuiper Systems raised concerns to the FCC, arguing that the changes requested by SpaceX would cause future orbital overlapping of Starlink satellites and its own satellites, which operate at similar altitudes.

Specifically, SpaceX proposed to lower the operation altitudes of a future cluster of Starlink satellites from 1,110-1,325 kilometers, its previous range, to 540-570 kilometers. The company argued that deploying satellites at this relatively low altitude will help reduce broadband signal latency and make it easier for any future space debris to de-orbit itself into Earth’s atmosphere.

The problem is that it’s too close to where Kuiper wants to deploy satellites. Kuiper’s lowest orbital shell is 590 km, with a tolerance of 9 km either above or below. And the upper end of SpaceX’s modified orbital shell is 570 km, with a 30 km tolerance. That means when the Kuiper constellation is fully deployed (The 590-km cluster is the last group Kuiper will deploy), Starlink and Kuiper satellites would likely be sharing a 20 km orbital shell.

SpaceX made a major concession this week. In a letter to the FCC on Tuesday penned by SpaceX’s head of satellite policy, David Goldman, the company agreed to restrict all Starlink satellites to operate at no higher than 580 km, which is just 1 km below Kuiper’s lowest altitude range, once Kuiper launches.

“As a result of discussions with Amazon, SpaceX has now committed to accepting the condition Amazon proposed to resolve its concern,” the letter said. “With that issue settled, SpaceX requests that the Commission grant its modification expeditiously.”

Specifically, SpaceX urged FCC to authorize deployment of a cluster of 58 Starlink satellites above the Arctic Circle as proposed in the original application, because the company doesn’t want to miss a launch window in December.

SpaceX stressed that deploying this polar shell is a key step in testing Starlink service in some of the world’s most remote areas, including Alaska. The company added that bringing coverage through polar orbits will contribute to national security by supporting critical government missions in areas where satellite internet access is the only option.

But Kuiper has other concerns with SpaceX’s plans. In its modification request, SpaceX also proposed reducing the minimum elevation angle of Starlink ground stations from 40° to 25° so as to compensate for reduced satellite coverage due to altitude changes (lower satellites cover less ground when broadcasting signals). 

Kuiper argued that lower elevation angles, combined with altitude reduction, will increase in-line interference events between the two constellations by up to 250 percent. It will take a while for Kuiper to verify these estimates, though, as it hasn’t deployed any satellites yet.

The Amazon subsidiary plans to eventually launch 3,200 satellites to form the constellation. The company received the FCC’s authorization for deployment in July.