While the idea of Space Laser battles may seem like the stuff of science fiction, this time they are very real. These battles, rather than being fought in space ships, are being waged in FCC filings by SpaceX and Amazon.
SpaceX is currently in the process of expanding Beta access to their Starlink internet across the US, and in furtherance of those goals, last year requested FCC permission to lower the orbit of their satellites from over 1,000km to 560km. Earlier this year, we saw SpaceX gain FCC permission to launch a batch of 10 Starlink satellites equipped with lasers into this low earth – polar orbit on their Transporter 1 mission. These satellites are the first Starlink Satellites to be equipped with laser, which will allow for communication directly between satellites- rather than a having a complete reliance on ground stations.
This modification was challenged by Amazon, who claimed the change in orbit would lead to interference with their as of yet unrealized Project Kuiper. Project Kuiper has a similar goal as Starlink, to provide high speed internet via a constellation of satellites. SpaceX argued that the change in altitude would allows them to decrease the power level, and that Amazon is attempting to stifle competition without making efforts to realize their own satellite constellation.
This is far from the first controversy that the Starlink constellation has faced. Critics of the network quickly took note of the bright trains of 60 satellites crossing the sky around sunset. While many SpaceX fans enjoy venturing outside just after dark to catch photos and videos of these trains, amateur and professional astrophotographers alike were worried about the impact they would have on future imagery. SpaceX was able to reduce many of these concerns through a darker coating and change to the operational angle of the satellites, but many still are worried that these regular launches of satellites are crowding space and creating new collision concerns and space junk.
Despite these challenges, SpaceX is continuing to expand their Starlink network with regular launches, and many customers are pleased to finally have access to high speed, low latency internet that was previously unavailable at their location. Last year we saw first responders in Washington State make use of Starlink’s quick setup as they help rebuild after devastating wildfires. While SpaceX will likely face more challenges as they move Starlink out of the Public Beta program, they have a multi-year advantage over any competitors, and by making use of their own reusable launch vehicle, have a much lower cost per launch than any of their competitors. This clear head start on providing internet to consumers makes it less likely that the FCC will side with competitors that are still years away from a useable service.