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SpaceX wins FCC approval to deploy 7,518 satellites

Todd Shields

Elon Musk’s SpaceX won permission to deploy more than 7,000 satellites, far more than all operating spacecraft currently aloft, from U.S. regulators who also moved to reduce a growing risk from space debris as skies grow more crowded.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has two test satellites aloft, and it earlier won permission for a separate set of 4,425 satellites – which like the 7,518 satellites authorized Thursday are designed to provide broadband communications. It has said it plans to begin launches next year.

Space companies riding innovations that include smaller and cheaper satellites – with some just 4 inches long and weighing only 3 pounds – are planning fleets that will fly fast and low, offering communications now commonly handled by larger, more expensive satellites.

Right now there are fewer than 2,000 operating satellites, and the planned additional space traffic demands vigilance, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said before the agency voted Thursday on a variety of space-related matters including SpaceX’s application, debris rules, and other space matters.

“Even a centimeter-wide object can wreak devastating damage to satellites,” Pai said. He pointed to the 2013 film “Gravity” that portrayed devastating consequences including a spacecraft’s destruction from a debris strike.

The agency on a 4-0 vote advanced rules to require more calculations to demonstrate a planned spacecraft poses a minimal risk of collisions, and to minimize new orbiting debris – for instance, from devices that remain aloft after releasing a satellite.

About 500,000 small pieces of debris were estimated to be in orbit in 2012, roughly five times the total in 2004, the FCC said in a notice.

The number of satellites orbiting Earth from all nations stood at 1,886 in August, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists policy group.

“Certain orbits are getting crowded,” Henry Hertzfeld, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said in an interview. “It is a problem that’s getting magnified in low Earth orbit by the proliferation” of small satellites.

The FCC gets involved with satellites as part of its role regulating the airwaves that spacecraft use to communicate.

The FCC also approved access to the U.S. market for satellites from Kepler Communications Inc., Telesat Canada and LeoSat MA.