SpaceX has been given the Federal Communications Commission approval to halve the orbital altitude of more than 1,500 planned broadband satellites in order to lower the risk of space debris and improve latency. Earlier there were protests by competitors and a clearing a major regulatory hurdle before the launch of the first batch of Internet satellites from Cape Canaveral in May.
In a statement on the new FCC approval, SpaceX said that "Starlink production is well underway, and the first group of satellites have already arrived at the launch site for processing." "This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, as quoted by spaceflightnow.com.
The Starlink satellites will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad as soon as mid-May. The Starlink mission is next in line on SpaceX’s launch manifest at the Florida spaceport after the liftoff of a Dragon supply ship for the International Space Station, a launch currently scheduled for no earlier than Friday.
In 2018, SpaceX had received FCC approval to launch 4,425 low-earth-orbit satellites at several altitudes from 1,110 km to 1,325 km. However, the FCC approval was contingent on SpaceX filing a more detailed debris-mitigation plan.
Satellites orbiting at 1,150 km will take "hundreds of years to enter the Earth's atmosphere," but a SpaceX satellite "will take less than five years (even under worst-case assumptions) if it starts at an altitude of 550 kilmoters," the company said.
The lower altitude will bring an advantage to broadband users, SpaceX explained. "By operating closer to the Earth, SpaceX would also reduce the latency of its communications signals to as low as 15 milliseconds, at which point it would be virtually unnoticeable to almost all users," the company said. (SpaceX has said latency from an altitude of 1,150 kilmoters would be 25 milliseconds to 35 milliseconds.)