NASA Asserts Starlink Doubts Are Not Meant For FCC License Rejection

Ramish Zafar
SpaceX Crew Dragon ISS Docked
SpaceX Crew Dragpn 'Resilience' as part of NASA's Crew 1 mission docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on November 16, 2020. Image: NASA

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has clarified its position in regards to an application filed by Space Exploration Technologies, LLC with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the latter's Starlink satellite internet constellation. Starlink is currently in the midst of a heated battle surrounding its attempt to convince the Commission to grant it approval to launch the satellites with SpaceX's Starship next-generation launch vehicle systems. Its competitors have shared a myriad of concerns with the FCC, and NASA itself highlighted the need for additional analysis for the thousands of satellites that Starlink plans to place in and in the vicinity of low Earth orbit (LEO).

In a new letter submitted earlier this month, NASA briefly mentions Starlink's response to its earlier claims and clarifies that any comments by the space agency are not meant to dissuade the FCC from issuing a license.

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The letter was filed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on NASA's behalf, and when compared to the space agency's earlier correspondence, it was briefly worded. In its first submission, NASA had outlined that it was unsavory for Starlink to assume that there was a "zero" risk of collision and other accidents in its constellation simply due to the sheer number of satellites that are planned to be placed in orbit.

It had added that while Starlink could ensure a safe environment within its constellation, the risks will grow as other companies bring their satellite constellations into orbit. As a result, the space agency had stressed the need for a risk assessment and requested that SpaceX share its results with NASA.

Starlink's response to this came on two fronts. The first was indirect and it came in the form of a release on the SpaceX website. This highlighted the variety of safety mechanisms that are built in the Starlink satellites and applied to the entire constellation.

NASA's latest letter to the FCC highlights that it only seeks to better understand the dynamically changing space environment. Image: FCC SAT-AMD-20210818-00105

The second came in the form of an FCC submission, which stressed that the company had worked with NASA to ensure that the latter's operations are not at risk, it had used NASA's software to calculate collision probabilities, that it had worked with NASA to share information for enhancing space safety and that it will continue to work with the space agency to further improve its services.

Following Starlink's FCC response, NASA's latest letter clarifies the agency's position on the debate surrounding the second generation Starlink satellites. It reaffirms that the agency will continue working with SpaceX to improve space safety. Additionally, and more importantly, it asserts that its comments are not filed in opposition to the Starlink modification application for the new spacecraft. Instead, they simply seek to ensure that NASA assets will be protected and that the space community can safely continue its operations.

As the agency states:

NASA’s technical comments are not intended to dissuade license request permission from the FCC but are intended to ensure protection of Agency on-orbit mission assets by highlighting the risks associated with large constellations concepts. NASA’s recommendations for additional analysis are intended to help the space community identify and mitigate negative effects to the space environment, protect all parties’ assets, and enable commercial space activities.

The second generation satellite modification application is currently seeing Starlink battle several rivals, each of which has its own concerns with the spacecraft. Some believe that the elevation angles proposed are dishonest, while others believe that the scope of the constellation will preclude competitors from launching economically feasible satellite internet services.

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