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Intelsat Tempers Down Disagreement Over SpaceX’s Experimental SmallSats

By | July 29, 2015
      SpaceX Intelsat Buildings

      Intelsat’s U.S. administrative headquarters (left), SpaceX headquarters (right). Photos: Intelsat and SpaceX

      [Via Satellite 07-29-2015] Intelsat has tempered down a disagreement with SpaceX over the deployment of two experimental satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). SpaceX is planning to launch a constellation of approximately 4,000 SmallSats for telecommunications services, and plans to use six to eight test and demonstration satellites starting in 2016. The launcher filed an application with the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May for the first two demo spacecraft, MicroSat 1a and MicroSat 1b, along with confidentiality treatment requests for five related exhibits. On July 9, Intelsat filed an informal objection to the FCC, urging the agency to deny the SpaceX MicroSat 1 a/b application. The operator concurrently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking to obtain full copies of SpaceX’s fillings.

      Intelsat asserted that the information available about the two satellites was too limited for the operator to analyze how SpaceX intends to protect co-frequency geostationary operations, as well as avoid collision with geostationary satellites transiting through LEO during launch. Specifically, the operator said that SpaceX’s confidentiality request hides “the kind of basic information that is routinely, and publicly, filed by other satellite operators.” Intelsat said it needed to know beam parameters and orbital parameters in order to accurately analyze potential interference and, if interference is detected, identify or eliminate a SpaceX transmission as the cause.

      SpaceX’s satellite mega-constellation plans were leaked on YouTube in January just days after OneWeb announced plans to build a network of roughly 650 LEO communications satellites with support from Qualcomm and the Virgin Group. In June Intelsat joined a team of companies investing in OneWeb, which will compete with SpaceX in the satellite domain.

      On July 20, SpaceX responded to Intelsat’s objection through the FCC, arguing that Intelsat was requesting significantly more information than necessary to address interference and collision risks. However, the company did release one of the requested exhibits, “Power Flux and Density Rev2,” on the same day. SpaceX said the necessary information about collision risks was already public, and called the incumbent operator’s concern about the risk posed by the MicroSats “baseless.”

      As experimental satellites, MicroSat 1 a/b are required to operate on a non-protection, non-harmful interference basis, showing deference to existing satellite systems. The spacecraft would operate in Ku- and X-band frequencies from a 625 km circular orbit with a lifespan of less than 10 years. For Ku-band broadband test operations, SpaceX plans to use a network of three ground stations, with one located at its Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters; the second at Tesla Motors headquarters in Fremont, Calif.; and the third at SpaceX’s Redmond, Wash. facility where it plans to build the constellation. Due to an elevation angle constraint of 40 to 90 degrees, and the geography of the three ground stations, SpaceX said the satellites would only transmit for approximately 10 minutes every 0.9 days.

      Regarding the collision risk during the Launch and Early Operations Phase (LEOP) for satellites above LEO, SpaceX said the short duration of LEOP activity, and the fact that such activity occurs at a different orbital inclination than those of MicroSat 1 a/b, pegs the probability of a collision on an order of less than one in 1 quadrillion. SpaceX said to the FCC that it has provided additional information beyond what is typically required to abate Space Situational Awareness (SSA) concerns, and asked that its experimental license be granted without further delay.

      In response to a Via Satellite inquiry, Intelsat provided the following statement on July 23:

      “Intelsat has long been a vocal proponent of satellite operators sharing information with one another to avoid or mitigate any potential interference issues that could disrupt connectivity. As the world’s leading provider of satellite services, we are understandably concerned about any system that could potentially cause interference with the valuable services that we provide to our customers every day. It is helpful that SpaceX has provided additional technical information. We are continuing to review their submission to determine if it is adequate for us to complete a thorough analysis of the potential impact.”

      SpaceX declined to comment for this article.

      On July 24, Intelsat submitted a reply to SpaceX’s July 20 letter commending the company for releasing further information through its Exhibit 2 filing. Nonetheless, Intelsat said the company still needs additional information on issues relating to interference and how SpaceX will be able to address the risk of collision when its experimental satellites are propulsion-less. The satellite operator disagreed with some of SpaceX’s calculations, and asked if the company is planning to make satellite ephemeris data available to bodies other than the United States Strategic Command‘s (U.S. Stratcom) Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), such as the Space Data Association (SDA), of which Intelsat is a member.

      SpaceX intends to respond to the FOIA request at another time. The company also requested the FCC modify the ex parte status of the proceeding from “restricted” to “permit but disclose” so that SpaceX and other interested parties can communicate directly with FCC on the issues at hand. Intelsat concurred that continuing discussion by classifying the proceeding as “permit but close” would be beneficial.

      “Intelsat agrees with SpaceX that given the technical nature of the issues herein, allowing the parties to communicate directly with the Commission will serve the public interest,” the company wrote July 24.

      Elon Musk, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, said in January that he hoped to have the first iteration of the constellation in place in roughly five years, and estimated the cost would be between $10 and $15 billion. He also said the established fleet will have propulsion.