Judges reject Viasat’s plea to stop SpaceX Starlink satellite launches

Enlarge / 60 Starlink satellites stacked for launch at SpaceX’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX may continue to launch broadband satellites despite a lawsuit filed by Viasat, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

Viasat sued the Federal Communications Commission in May and asked judges for a stay that would end SpaceX’s ongoing launches of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites that power the Starlink Internet service. To get a stay, Viasat had to show he is likely to win his lawsuit alleging the FCC improperly approved satellite launches.

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was unconvinced, quickly stating that “Viasat has failed to meet the strict requirements of a pending suspension. review by the court ”. The judges, however, allowed a request to expedite the appeal, so the case should go faster than normal.

Viasat fears Starlink competition

Viasat is concerned that its slower Internet service delivered from geostationary satellites will lose customers once Starlink is released from beta and more widely available. Viasat has LEO-satellite plans but nothing close to the thousands of satellites SpaceX is launching or the 1,500 or so that SpaceX already has in operation.

Viasat alleged that the FCC failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved SpaceX satellite launches because the commission “refused to conduct any environmental assessment. Viasat told the DC Circuit Court that SpaceX launches should be halted due to potential damage to the environment when the satellites are out of orbit; light pollution that alters the night sky; orbital debris; the risk of collision that may affect Viasat; and because “Viasat will suffer undue competitive prejudice.”

“This tribunal is likely to set aside the [FCC] order and direct the commission to carry out at least some Starlink’s NEPA review, ”Viasat wrote. ” All [SpaceX] launches should take place after this review, not before. This court should stay the order pending its review. “

Viasat has argued that a suspension will not do SpaceX much harm if the FCC order is ultimately upheld. “If this tribunal upholds the commission’s decision on NEPA, the only effect of the suspension would be to delay SpaceX’s ability to launch satellites in accordance with the [FCC] order of a number of months, “wrote Viasat.

Viasat’s limited plans of Lower Earth

Viasat explained its financial concerns, writing that SpaceX “intends to use its ecologically irresponsible constellation to expand its reach geographically and compete directly with Viasat.” The speed at which SpaceX launches satellites makes both the scope and the risk of harm during this call particularly high. “

Viasat said it “operates at least one satellite at the same altitude as Starlink” and has a “contract with the Department of Defense to operate a high-value LEO satellite in the same orbital range as the Starlink satellites. , which it intends to launch in the next six to twelve months. ” Viasat alleged that “failed SpaceX satellites and debris from a collision involving a SpaceX satellite can damage, disable or destroy Viasat satellites.”

Dish Network is also fighting SpaceX’s FCC approval, and Dish’s case was solidified with Viasat’s appeal. The judges set an August 6 deadline for Viasat and Dish to file their opening briefs. The FCC will have until September 21 and SpaceX will have until September 28. Dish and Viasat will have until October 12 to file responses, and final briefs are due October 26. Pleadings will follow “on the earliest appropriate date” after briefs.

FCC defends SpaceX license

The FCC and SpaceX filed briefs last month opposing Viasat’s request to suspend. The FCC told the judges that it “closely and reasonably rejected Viasat’s claims … For each category of alleged environmental impact, the Commission examined in detail the alleged effect and found insufficient evidence that the modification of the license of SpaceX … requires further consideration “.

The FCC has given SpaceX several satellite launch approvals. In 2018, the FCC approved 4,408 satellites at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300 km. In 2019, the agency granted a license amendment that halved the orbital altitude of 1,584 of these satellites.

The FCC order challenged by Viasat was another license amendment granted in April 2021 that lowered the altitude of the remaining 2,824 satellites to 540-570 km. The FCC said in its brief that the license amendment fell into a class of “actions that normally do not have a significant effect on the human environment.” Under this “categorical exclusion”, a review is not required by NEPA except in “extraordinary circumstances” where there may be “a significant environmental impact,” the FCC said.

The FCC has asked SpaceX to explain how it will prevent orbital debris, space collisions, and casualties when the satellite reentry. The FCC also imposed conditions on the license.

SpaceX’s orbital debris mitigation plan explained that the satellites are able to maneuver to avoid collisions and that the low altitude helps minimize debris by ensuring that satellites descend more quickly into the atmosphere and are destroyed at the end of their useful life, “the FCC told the judges. . SpaceX also addressed the risk of potential injury resulting from portions of satellites surviving re-entry by explaining that SpaceX had revised the design of all satellites except the initial 75 so that “no component of … the satellite will survive. upon re-entry, thereby reducing the number of risk casualties to zero. ‘”The FCC said it” granted the amendment with conditions, including compliance with current and future rules on orbital debris. “

SpaceX also has FCC approval for 7,500 other satellites with even lower orbits.

FCC and SpaceX synchronized

The FCC had more arguments against Viasat’s petition, telling the judges that Viasat “is based on speculative claims of predominantly economic harm that do not demonstrate a likelihood of Viasat having standing, let alone irreparable harm justifying the claim. extraordinary remedy of a stay pending appeal “. Stopping satellite launches would undermine “SpaceX and the public interest in advancing broadband satellite service in remote or underserved areas of the United States,” the FCC said.

The SpaceX dossier alleged that Viasat made a “transparent offer to co-opt the National Environmental Policy Act and the extraordinary stay process as trade war weapons,” adding:

Viasat’s new environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn. Viasat did not raise any environmental concerns in relation to any other satellite clearances, including SpaceX’s permission to operate Starlink satellites at a different altitude and its prior request (almost identical to the one at issue here) to lower many of these satellites. On the contrary, Viasat – a non-US licensee who previously sought to escape Commission regulation entirely – ultimately relies on “competitive harm” to support its suspension request. But stifling competition and protecting profits is not NEPA’s goal.

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About Travis Durham

Travis Durham

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