SpaceX made a surprising peace deal to focus its satellite fight with Amazon

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: SpaceX flips on Amazon, rocket surveillance from space, and the future of satellite repair.

There was big regulatory news in space this week, and it wasn’t about SpaceX’s plans to launch its next-generation rocket from Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX and OneWeb, whose satellite networks compete to sell broadband internet to users on Earth, announced a surprise détente in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees communications satellites.

The two companies said that after years of comically hyperbolic allegations about the dangers of each other’s spacecraft, they decided both their current satellites and next generation systems will work fine together, don’t worry about it.

Several experts who could not speak on the record because of their work on these two projects said this surprising agreement is driven by the companies’ fear of Kuiper, Amazon’s forthcoming internet satellite constellation, abetted by OneWeb’s new dependency on SpaceX for access to space.

This fight dates back to the split between OneWeb founder Greg Wyler and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who had originally plotted a joint satellite internet project together. When they went their separate ways, they became rivals for the radio spectrum required to provide connectivity in space. At the FCC, they have fought over how to share or split that spectrum, with OneWeb citing its first-filer status as an advantage.

The FCC set up a round-based system for processing applications to build satellite networks like these. Last December, with prompting from Amazon and SpaceX, the agency said it was considering moving away from that system and sunsetting the protections given to earlier filers. And rather than demanding private coordination between rivals to prevent interference, Amazon had proposed adopting standard metrics, like how much a satellite’s signal is degraded by other systems. 

Now, it appears there is a reversal: SpaceX and OneWeb, this letter implies, are happy to see the processing rounds approach continue, and to rely on private coordination to resolve any problems. So what does this mean for the three firms?

OneWeb, in giving up its fight over coordination, may not lose too much: Its first-mover status internationally didn’t give it a huge advantage in the American regulatory system. Ending its battle with SpaceX likely means a quicker path to getting its much-improved next generation of satellites licensed. More to the point, after being cut off from access to Russian launch vehicles, it now depends on SpaceX rockets to put its satellites in orbit, and has every incentive to make sure it does as soon as possible.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is eager to see its next generation of satellites, larger and more powerful than the current ones, be approved by the FCC. That, in turn, will help the company’s case to win access to hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies to deliver broadband internet to rural customers. The main risk SpaceX faces is running out of money to invest in its capital-intensive projects, and by speeding up the deployment of its new satellites and access to subsidies, SpaceX will be better positioned to compete when Kuiper starts coming online sometime in 2026.

So what does it mean for Amazon? If its competitors launch their next-generation satellite networks before Kuiper is fully operational, the coordination commitments the company wanted to avoid in the first place will be more onerous. And it will be facing tougher competition for customers on the ground.

Tim Farrar, a satellite industry consultant who has worked with OneWeb, published a report on Starlink this week that estimated 2026 revenues at $3.5 billion, a fairly extraordinary number. If neither Starlink nor Kuiper are cancelled by then, due to a recession affecting SpaceX’s fundraising or Amazon’s vast capital expenditures, he predicts they will spend the latter half of the decade in a knock-down fight to sell cheap connectivity—and the rest of the industry had better watch out.

One of my favorite recursive space phenomena is using satellites to spy on satellite launches. The space imaging firm Maxar spotted a rocket being erected at a launch site in Iran, foreshadowing an upcoming launch or test.

A rocket being erected in Iran.

Image copyright: Maxar

With negotiations over a renewed international deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program in the balance, any launch attempt is bound to be seen (however incorrectly) as provocative.

Meanwhile, in China, satellite imagery has uncovered an apparent explosion on a rocket launch pad from October 2021.

SPACE DEBRIS

That other regulatory thing. The less surprising news this week was SpaceX’s passing grade on the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental impact review of the Starship launch site in Boca Chica. The approval includes a laundry-list of tasks SpaceX must do to limit the impact of Starship launches, some of which are straightforward. Others, particularly historical reports and donations of fishing tackle, have inspired complaints about regulatory overreach. The decision tees up SpaceX to request a launch license, but there is likely to be further litigation over the agency’s decision from the company’s critics.

Momentus has tug trouble. The publicly traded company’s orbital transfer vehicle, designed to deploy small satellites after launching on a large rocket, has been suffering problems since it arrived in orbit earlier this month and has failed to deploy seven satellites.

Astra has Tropics trouble. Another graduate of the SPAC class of 2021, Astra’s attempt at the first of three planned launches for six new NASA Earth science satellites failed on June 12. It’s the fifth failure in seven launches for the company, but the next two are critical since all four remaining Tropics satellites must be launched for the system to work.

SLS preps for fourth Wet Dress Rehearsal. NASA will once again practice fueling Boeing’s Space Launch System rocket starting on July 20, with hopes that a successful run-through will allow the first Artemis mission, an uncrewed orbit of the Moon, to take flight later this year.

Inside the US plan for factories in space. A new national strategy released by the White House this spring will incentivize in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing, building on decades of hard-won experience with the International Space Station and private efforts at space sustainability.

your pal,

Tim

This was issue 137 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your NGSO regulatory inside baseball, projected Starship orbital test launch dates, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.